Where does Major go from here?: He survived Maastricht, but his troubles are far from over and he cannot use the same trick again. Donald Macintyre and Stephen Castle report

NOTHING, perhaps, underlines the seriousness of a political crisis more than a full Cabinet meeting at an unfamiliar time and place. The one that took place at 7pm last Thursday was a case in point.

All 22 members of the Cabinet squeezed round the large table that dominates the Prime Minister's L-shaped room in the House of Commons and heard the bleak news from Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, that the first of that night's two crucial votes was too close to call, but that the Government would almost certainly lose the second.

Details remain sketchy - we may have to await the publication of Douglas Hurd's diaries some years hence for a full account - but it is clear that a range of options that had been drawn up by Hurd were fully rehearsed. These included the possibility of drafting, over the weekend, a White Paper on British participation in the European Social Chapter.

However Hurd, with the backing of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard, was firm. All three argued that if the second vote was lost John Major should act immediately and move a confidence vote - including a reaffirmation of government policy against the Social Chapter - for the following day. The clear consequence, already discussed between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, was that a defeat in the confidence vote would quickly be followed by the dissolution of Parliament and a general election.

Although two of the Cabinet's Eurosceptics, John Redwood and Peter Lilley, flirted with the idea of postponing the whole issue until after the recess, there were no other takers, and they did not press their case.

There was also some mild disagreement about whether the confidence vote should be left until Monday, which would have allowed the weekend for constituency associations to bring pressure on the rebels to toe the government line. The counter-view, which prevailed, was that it would also allow the weekend press to build up an atmosphere of mega-crisis, with dangerously unpredictable consequences.

But what made the meeting so dramatic was what was not said, as much as what was. For the unspoken understanding round the Cabinet table was that a general election - the risk held out as the ultimate deterrent to the Euro-rebels - was the preferred option to a change of leadership. The Cabinet - and in particular, the likeliest successors, Clarke and Hurd, were pledging that they would go down with the ship rather than seize the helm.

There is, of course, cold logic as well as sentiment in this. Whatever Major's vulnerability, his removal would not have solved the Maastricht problem. Neither Hurd nor Clarke, as pro-Europeans, would do other than inherit the same problem as leader. Neither man would have been prepared to go into reverse and call a referendum, however much some on the right might wish it. The centre of gravity in the Cabinet remains pro-European; and here was an opportunity for the party to rid itself of the Maastricht incubus once and for all.

In hindsight, the appalling prospect of an election seems merely theoretical. The beauty of Thursday night's manoeuvre, after all, was that it deprived the rebels of any intellectual argument for voting against the Government. The certain consequence would be a Labour-led government, Maastricht, and the Social Chapter.

But the possibility of an election, however remote, made the occasion particularly sombre. As one senior Cabinet minister insisted on Friday: 'We didn't know how crazy the rebels were prepared to be.'

As it turned out, every one of the rebels who had taken part in the year-long civil war over the Maastricht treaty trooped meekly through the division lobby with the Government in the two votes on Friday afternoon. (The only exception was Rupert Allason, MP for Torbay and better known as the spy novelist Nigel West. In keeping with his craft he has remained, to the wrath of the whips, in a secret location - which he denies is his second home in Bermuda; on Friday he was the only Tory MP not to vote with the Government.)

Major had threatened them first with a general election that the Tories could not win; second with the loss of the Tory whip, which would in any case have disbarred them from fighting it as official Conservative candidates. In the end none of them was foolhardy - or destructive - enough to defy the Government in such circumstances.

Within minutes of the votes, therefore, the message went out through the lobbies and corridors of Westminster. The vote had been a turning point; by choosing the boldest - and riskiest - of the several options open to him, Major had won a glittering prize: a glad, confident morning to awaken to after the Maastricht nightmare.

His Cabinet colleagues could not have been more enthusiastic. 'John has been so good in this crisis,' said one. 'He has been calm and he's been decisive.' Another, who did not vote for him in the November 1990 leadership election, said: 'He explored all the options very carefully, but for someone who's supposed to be a ditherer, he's shown that when push comes to shove, he can take the tough decisions.' Another member of his ministerial team added: 'This has been a catharsis. In the autumn you'll all be looking back on this and writing about how the hardening of John Major started here.'

TO ASSESS the truth of these claims, and the impact on Major's future of the most momentous parliamentary crisis the Prime Minister has faced since taking office, you have to go briefly back to last Autumn, and the British opt-out from the treaty's Social Chapter at Maastricht itself.

At the time, the opt-out was heralded as a great negotiating triumph for the Prime Minister; now that it is secured thanks to Friday's shotgun endorsement it will be again. But there have been times in the past six months when Major must have wished he had just signed up to it in the first place (as Michael Heseltine, from the freedom of the back benches in 1989, advised Britain to do).

It has always been a baffling aspect of the whole saga that, since there is a large majority of MPs in each of the main parties who are in favour of the treaty, it should have had such a difficult ride. True, there was a dispute between Labour, which wanted to participate in the Social Chapter, and the Tories, who did not. But since the Social Chapter was anathema to the Euro-rebels above all, they would hardly support Labour in seeking to secure it. That, at least, is how it looked when Major won his negotiating battles in Maastricht 'game set and match'.

What helped to change all this, ironically, was the Prime Minister's own frequently - and passionately - stated opposition to the chapter.

It long been a feature of Major's premiership that no one quite knows where he stands on Europe. But he once told a colleague privately that he was the 'fourth most Euro-sceptic' member of the Cabinet (after Michael Portillo, Lilley and Norman Lamont). This is a judgement that might surprise Howard, who would probably see himself as rather more sceptical on the question than the Prime Minister. But no matter.

To underpin this view of himself, and to reassure the Euro-sceptic wing of the party of his credentials, in speech after speech Major denounced the Social Chapter.

True, he did not go as far as his then Chancellor by promising explicitly in the Commons that Britain would 'never' sign the chapter. But it gradually began to dawn on the rebels that if they supported Labour in seeking participation in the chapter, the Government might have no alternative but to sabotage the treaty itself.

If Major's rhetoric was to be believed, they rationalised, he would regard no treaty as better than a treaty plus chapter.

That was the basis of the 'unholy alliance' between Labour and the Euro-rebels about which Major complained so bitterly in his speech on Thursday; and it was what made Labour's insistence on a Social Chapter vote, in the words of George Robertson, the party's European affairs frontbencher, a 'ticking time bomb' - which finally detonated on Thursday night.

Major, in short, carries some responsibility for inciting the rebellion.

In the last 48 hours it has become a cliche to describe the Prime Minister's almost unprecedented decision to call a confidence vote on Friday the 'nuclear option'. The option was certainly Major's own preference - he had after all let it be known last November that an election might be the consequence of a government defeat in the ill thought-out paving debate on Europe.

And although it was discussed from at least the beginning of last week, and crystallised as a contingency plan, as we shall see, at a meeting at which Major was not present on Wednesday evening, it should not obscure the intensity of the conventional war waged on Thursday in the - abortive - hope of securing victory over the rebels. The attempts to whip the rebels in, though perhaps more subtle than on previous occasions, was no less enthusiastic.

The most famous case is that of the Ulster Unionists - even more energetically handled than has been realised so far.

For we can reveal that Major not only telephoned Jim Molyneux, leader of the Official Unionists, on Thursday evening before the vote, but met him in secret earlier in the day as well.

Technically there was no deal; as one prominent Unionist MP put it: 'If we had everything written down, I would have gone back to my constituency and people would have said to me, 'What's John Major doing about the pot- hole in the road?'.'

But an understanding was reached. Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew had already subtly repositioned themselves three weeks earlier, after the Labour Party

paper advocating joint sovereignty for the province; both men reaffirmed the Union in unequivocal terms in the House of Commons. The Orange card, as Randolph Churchill called it, was about to be played.

On Thursday they played it. Major and Molyneux talked as party leader to party leader; as Privy Councillor to Privy Councillor. The Official Unionists would henceforth vote with the Government, at the very least in confidence motions. And expect a Select Committee for Northern Ireland - a long-held and arguably integrationist aspiration of the Unionists - before too long.

In the meantime, senior and junior ministers, particularly from the right of the party, were deployed with varying degrees of success to woo the rebels. Neil Hamilton, junior minister for trade and industry, was despatched, without success, to talk to Edward Leigh, the minister sacked by Major for disloyalty over Europe. On each occasion that Hamilton appeared at the former minister's new Westminster home, Leigh's wife announced firmly that he was out.

In the couple of hours before the votes on Thursday night, there were scenes of high drama in the members' lobby rarely seen in peacetime. Lilley and Howard closed in on Ian Duncan-Smith, the young MP for Lord Tebbit's old constituency of Chingford, as he waited on the edge of the lobby. The Euro-rebels saw the pincer movement and Sir Teddy Taylor shouted across to Duncan-Smith: 'Your friends are here.' Duncan-Smith turned into the chamber and joined the rebels. But the use of Euro-sceptic ministers was discriminating. When asked if he had been deployed, one minister replied in the negative, adding: 'They probably thought that they might have persuaded me.'

Some MPs did return to the government fold, including John Carlisle, MP for Luton North, and Michael Lord, MP for Suffolk Central, both of whom advertised their defections by making interventions in the Prime Minister's speech on Thursday - prompting one cynical Euro-sceptic to comment that their recantations sounded like a pair of Stalin's victims at a 'show trial'. (Major, for his part, declared that he was delighted to welcome 'sinners' back to the fold.)

Roger Knapman backed the Government after being spotted eating beans on toast with Lilley in the members' tea room. Knapman came up sheepishly to Teresa Gorman after Thursday night's vote in a teeming members' lobby to confess his apostasy. 'Why did you do that?' asked Gorman. 'Because he is a sensible fellow,' boomed the large and loyalist Nicholas Bonsor, standing behind him.

Nicholas Winterton did likewise after securing a new definition of the government policy towards the ERM from David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment. Other Tory MPs were disparaging about Winterton's 'concession'. According to one: 'Perhaps because he has been mentally counted out of the Conservative Party by his colleagues, he seemed desperate for a reason to vote for us. He was like a junkie saying: 'Look at me, I can do a day off heroin'.' He was rewarded in the euphoric aftermath of Friday's confidence vote by a bear hug from Nicholas Soames.

The previous evening, Soames, in a self-mockingly desperate attempt to persuade the inflexible Gorman with gallantry, went into the Labour whips' office, took a bunch of flowers out of a vase and rushed back into the lobby to present it with a kiss to the Billericay MP. It was in vain. Bonsor, by contrast, encountering Nicholas Budgen, picked him up, according to one eye witness, and 'shook him like a ferret'.

Budgen, who abstained on the Labour amendment (which would have secured British participation in the Social Chapter) and voted against the Government on the substantive motion (which would have allowed the Government to ratify the treaty without it), was one of several prominent Euro- rebel MPs who had the previous day been individually pressed in a series of half-hour meetings by the Prime Minister to change his mind. He would later complain that Major gave no inkling of the 'nuclear' option he had in store in the event of a defeat.

Overall the whips were a good deal less successful than Major had hoped. As one pro-EC backbench Tory put it: 'They underestimated the rebels. One has to ask why they did. After all, Sir Teddy Taylor resigned from Heath's government over this. Sir Richard Body was against Macmillan on Europe.'

Once again the saturnine and, among the Euro-rebels highly influential, figure of Tebbit haunted the corridors. He went into the smoking room on Thursday evening in search of wavering sceptics, only to find his every move shadowed by the benign but determined presence of Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary.

Less genially, there were near- fisticuffs in the division lobby when Bill Walker, the ailing Scottish Tory MP, arrived wholly unexpectedly determined to vote with Labour against the Government. Two Tory loyalists, Elaine Kellet-Bowman and Irving Patnick, spotted him and shouted that he should not be allowed to vote because he had been 'paired' with another absentee as a result his illness.

At that point the burly figure of Don Dixon, Labour's deputy chief whip, arrived. 'Nobody who goes through this lobby is paired,' he cried. 'If there is any more of this, we'll close the doors and start the vote again.' Patnick backed down, though it seems to have been in this confusion that the miscounting of the anti-Government vote occurred. It was not a tie, as officially counted, but a one-vote victory for the Government. In the event this made no difference, because the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, used her casting vote - in accordance with normal procedure - to support the Government.

BUT the loyalty prize of the week probably goes to Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State at the Health Department; he had had more reason than most Tory MPs to resent Major's dramatic decision to have a confidence debate on Friday; fortunately he is a friend and ally of Major's, and did his duty without complaint. Mawhinney had already travelled out to Hong Kong once that week to meet his daughter-in-law-to-be for the first time, and then flown back to vote. Without the Friday vote, he would have arrived in plenty of time at the wedding. His plane touched down yesterday at 2.30pm, half an hour after the ceremony had started.

So where does this all leave Major? On the one hand, the Maastricht nightmare is over; moreover, he performed well both in the debate on Thursday and behind the closed doors of the 1922 committee meeting that afternoon, provoking prolonged applause - and the traditional desk-banging - from MPs. 'What is he taking?' one cynical reporter asked a Major aide. 'Adrenalin,' the aide replied.

It is possible, in the words of one loyalist, to imagine that this is 'not the beginning of the end; it's the beginning of the beginning'. Or in the opinion of another: 'This is the turning point; he could now go on to be Stanley Baldwin.'

Second, the current conventional wisdom among the rebels is still that a leadership challenge this November is unlikely. Some MPs - not, it should be said, the men themselves, mention Kenneth Baker and Sir Peter Tapsell as possible challengers, the second very much in a stalking horse mode. But the probability is that they will resist any such temptation, in effect giving Major until next year to see whether his own political fortunes recover with the economy.

Third, though our poll shows that this has not percolated through to the perceptions of voters in Christchurch, the economy is now showing signs of recovering faster than forecast. Fourth, the MPs who are most hostile to Major - those on the right who helped to elect him in the first place - are by no means universally warmly disposed towards Clarke. Indeed it is said that Baroness Thatcher has been discreetly calling in Euro-rebels to warn them off talk of leadership challenges, preferring to allow Portillo to mature as a medium-term candidate for the succession.

The Prime Minister appears outwardly sanguine, believing that he has been written off prematurely more than once before; he also believes that his travails are no worse - and therefore no less capable of reversal - than those faced by Thatcher in the dark period of 1981. He is certainly, and justifiably, relieved to be rid at last of the Maastricht Bill.

Against this are the pitfalls ahead. First Christchurch, which, however much discounted, will still be a shock when it comes. Then, despite all the talk about reconciliation and unity, from Major as much as anyone, the problems with the Euro-rebels will not go away.

True, there is not - and this is important - the focus for civil war in the party that the Maastricht Bill provided, and that is not likely to come along at least until the manifesto for the European elections comes to be drawn up. But in the words of one senior Tory on the right of the party: 'These people have learnt to love the oxygen of publicity and they are not going to lose it easily.'

There are the tough decisions to make in the public spending round. The party conference could be bloody as Major confronts activists from the restive associations. Some hostile MPs are talking of a 'Ceausescu conference', recalling the occasion on which the Romanian president, under the impression he was addressing another well-drilled rally of the faithful from the balcony of his palace, found himself being jeered and booed by a hostile mob. And there are the looming local council elections in May, to be followed by the European elections in June.

The real test will be whether Major's and the party's political fortunes can follow in the slipstream of an economic recovery. If they do, he could still be safe. If they do not, it is hard to see how he could last beyond next year, let alone for the parliament. He secured a parliamentary coup last week; but in the process he expended real politicial capital, since the effectiveness of the threat of an election depended on the near-certainty of the defeat it would bring in its wake. It is, by any measure, a pretty dubious achievement to have imposed discipline on your party by exploiting its desperately low standing in public opinion. It is doubtful, to say the least, that he could pull the same trick again.

Above all there is the prospect of what Macmillan used to call 'events'. According to one prominent Tory ex-minister: 'I don't think he can afford to make one really big mistake now. And it's no fault of his; but the problem is that the simple law of politics means that he probably will.'

(Photographs omitted)

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