And now for something completely irrelevant

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YOU DIDN'T need an honours degree in political psychology to tell that something was up ahead of last night's defeat. At the weekend, minister after minister had popped out to chastise the Tory rebels, each in his own way. Kenneth Clarke biffed them. Michael Heseltine went Grrr. Douglas Hurd was elevated, and murmured about the national interest. Sir Norman Fowler was pained. Most devastatingly of all, John Major was Nice: they were patriotic, impassioned and so forth, these rebels. Decent types, deep down - but badly mistaken.

In short, the impression was given that the Cabinet was at the end of its tether with the anti-Maastricht hooligans, that some sort of crisis had arrived.

Which raised the obvious question, why? John Major's first Commons defeat was an embarrassing one which he could have done without. But it wasn't a big deal. It delays the Bill, but it doesn't kill it. The rebels reckon the Government is four days ahead of its private schedule for the legislation.

The ministerial case is that the rebels are wasting the country's time on what Mr Clarke called 'surreal Monty Pythonesque exchanges on the floor of the Commons'. Other important matters are being delayed while this 'farce' continues. The country is bored of the issue, and its legislature must move on. Really?

Certainly, everyone seems to take it for granted that the parliamentary battle on Maastricht is silly. And a random plunge into Hansard produces some strange stuff. It produces Richard Ottaway, Conservative member for South Croydon, on the Roman Catholic Church's attitude to the rhythm method of contraception. It produces Teresa Gorman, Conservative member for Billericay, on cork trees in Portugal and Spanish hydrological plants: 'The rain in Spain falls mainly on the gravy train.'

The trouble is, most of it is relevant in some way to Maastricht. Indeed, the surprising thing about reading the debates is not that they are tedious and bad, but that they are rather good. The Tory rebels may be wreckers, but they are operating within the strict confines of the Commons rules. Mostly, they are making serious arguments, seriously. Ministers appear to respond sensibly.

It is when one stops reading, and starts looking, that the problem becomes apparent. The words of a serious national debate are being recorded, and future historians will find them in Hansard. But the spirit is missing. It is an empty event. Most speeches are made to a near-vacant chamber. Rebels interrupt one another with the pedantic courtesy of people talking for their own amusement, rather than to urgently convince. Ministers loll about, wretched with boredom.

Though people are speaking, at a deep level, no one is listening. And this is logical. The Government cannot let the Bill be defeated. It has decided it cannot concede anything of substance - and yesterday was insubstantial - without destroying the treaty. So its ministers are fated not to listen: how could they, when they cannot allow their minds to be changed by anything they hear? They can only endure. The problem is not the seriousness, or otherwise, of the parliamentary exchanges. The problem is their constitutional pointlessness.

The prospect of the Government falling in some cataclysm has been the only thing which has kept interest in the parliamentary debate alive. Last year, Mr Major nearly did resign. But that moment passed. Apart from the occasional fright, the debate (which both sides said was vital to Britain) degenerated into a wearisome charade. The rebels could not admit it without also admitting their own impotence. Ministers haven't been able to either: their insistence on the importance of Parliament's role has been an essential alibi - for potential rebels, for voters and for pushy European colleagues alike.

The Westminster farce at which they now protest is the very same unique, line- by-line, parliamentary examination which Continental nations, poor dears, are deprived of. It is the Mother of Parliaments at her blessed work. It is the reason we, unlike lesser tribes, don't need a referendum. But Minister, if it's so wonderful, why have you become bored with it? Sshh]

All of this would be different if it were the Commons, and not Her Majesty's Ministers, which negotiated treaties. If the Speaker could go back to Maastricht and say: 'Sorry, we can't go all the way with you on Clause 907, subsection XXV, have to renegotiate that bit,' then the parliamentary scrutiny of Maastricht would be a great matter. But, under the British system, it is a yes or no question, and Parliament said yes last year.

Up to this weekend, it has suited ministers to pretend that Parliament is spending its time wisely. Under pressure, they have let the cat out of the bag: theirs is the frustration of men and women who have tired of the pretence that the Commons is, or ought to be, an active player in the detail of European union. Despite yesterday's excitement, it is only the stagnant source of power, the pool of majorities for the men who negotiate. But there is a wider truth here. How often do parliamentary debates change the substance of any legislation, European or otherwise? The constitutional issue thrown up by Maastricht isn't the parliamentary sovereignty that will be lost if the treaty is ratified: it's the parliamentary power that was never there in the first place.