Whitelaw and Howe warn Lords not to vote with Thatcher: Tory rebels seeking Maastricht referendum expected to fall about 80 votes short of majority

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THE BIG guns of the Thatcher administration, Viscount Whitelaw and Lord Howe, warned yesterday of the damage that a House of Lords vote for a Maastricht treaty referendum would inflict on the country and the Conservative Party.

Lord Whitelaw told the Independent: 'The result would actually mean, not a referendum, but delay and acrimonious argument - all for no purpose. Delay would be very bad for the country and for parliamentary democracy. The House of Lords must not usurp the position of the elected House.'

With peers facing one of their most critical decisions for many years on the referendum issue late tomorrow night, Lord Denham, who served a 12- year term as Baroness Thatcher's Chief Whip in the Lords, said: 'The Government will win, but it is important the Government should win with a large majority.'

Lady Thatcher has indicated that she will vote against the Government - while curiously suggesting that she would 'never, never' do anything to harm John Major. Some of her allies in the Lords appeared more equivocal. In a letter to Tory peers, they argued that if a referendum went against the Government, it was 'far from certain that the Prime Minister would resign', while adding: 'Even if he did, a new leader would be elected and the Conservative majority in the Commons would hold.'

The rebels' letter said that while they disliked referendums because they trusted parliamentary democracy, the Maastricht treaty undermined parliamentary democracy.

However, Lord Whitelaw, who was deputy prime minister to Lady Thatcher, said the referendum proposition had been defeated by a Commons majority of nearly 240 votes in April, and the idea that the Lords could reverse that cross-Commons majority was 'incredible'.

Lord Howe, who became deputy prime minister in 1989, told BBC radio: 'For us now to launch ourselves into a referendum would be total folly. I can think of nothing more calculated to do damage to the Conservative Party, nor more calculated to do damage to Britain's sensible objective of playing a leading part in the heart of Europe.'

As for Lady Thatcher's planned revolt, he added: 'Imagine what would have happened if, when she was prime minister, Ted Heath had been leading an organised rebellion in the House of Lords against a key part of the programme, a flagship on which the Government had fought and won the election. I think she would have regarded it as a pretty disloyal thing to be doing.'

Faced with a combined force of Tory loyalists, and the bulk of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, Lord Pearson, a Tory rebel organiser, calculated the pro-referendum group was about 80 votes short of a majority; with a basic vote of about 230 for the Government, and 150 opponents.

He was hoping that a solid contingent of rare attenders, the so-called backwoodsmen, would rally round on the day. 'Willie (Whitelaw) and Co are working very hard, and that's very powerful, but it isn't actually out of shot,' he said.

Lord Whitelaw said he had been told by one of those planning to vote for a referendum that at least they would go down with all flags flying. 'What on earth is the use of going down with all flags flying?' he asked.

Andrew Marr, page 21

Paddy Ashdown, page 21