Leading Article: A picture of confusion

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The Independent Online
THE Government appeared yesterday to have defused the threat to the Bill ratifying the Maastricht treaty. Last week it was feared that a rebellion by Tory backbenchers would be strong enough to carry a Labour amendment reinstating the Social Chapter, from which John Major had triumphantly secured an opt-out in the final stages of negotiation. Legal advice from the Foreign Office was that such an amendment would make ratification of the treaty impossible. Yesterday the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, produced updated legal advice from the Attorney General - that because the protocol about the Social Chapter would not affect British law directly, a vote for the amendment would not affect ratification.

It cannot be said that the overall effect of the volte-face was impressive. The main effect of the Government's attempts at news management since the Tory dissidents' plot became known last week has been to create a high degree of confusion, starting with Mr Hurd's remarks on Wednesday that 'there is no question of our ratifying a treaty other than the one we have negotiated'. His remarks were widely interpreted as confirming that if the Government lost the vote on the amendment, the treaty would not be ratified - a reading that delighted the rebels.

At the weekend, a change of tack appears to have been tried, though the Government denies it was the source: the treaty could be ratified as it stands even if the amendment were passed, since the Government would be acting on behalf of the Crown and since Parliament has no power to amend treaties. That line seemed to make a nonsense of the entire drawn-out parliamentary procedure, to which the Prime Minister had attached such significance when explaining the glories of Britain's parliamentary sovereignty to less fortunate EC partners. It also appeared to undermine the arguments for not holding a referendum on the treaty. The ensuing outcry from Tory rebels was utterly predictable.

The purpose of the Bill is to incorporate amendments to the original European Communities Act of 1972 into British law. The burder of Mr Hurd's new advice was that incorporation of the Social Chapter protocol was legally desirable but not necessary. It was hardly surprising that Labour MPs wondered whether this latest legal advice was final.

The Foreign Secretary went on to mention that the Government's position on the 'substance of the matter' remained unchanged: it believed that the Social Chapter would harm growth and jobs in this country. Mr Hurd should have made more of that argument last week. A logical tactic would have been to remind potential Tory rebels publicly that the party as a whole was united in its opposition to the Social Chapter; and that supporting Labour's amendment would be widely seen as an opportunistic and discreditable tactical move. True, Mr Hurd may have feared that the rebels are beyond shame. But securing their vote for the Government is the object of the exercise, and there remain many weeks in which to increase the pressure on them.

The main effect of the legal and political confusion of the past six days will be to increase public disenchantment with both the treaty itself and Parliament's way of scrutinising it. The essential fact is that a large if unenthusiastic majority of the House of Commons is in favour of the treaty being ratified. The main provisions of the treaty are only likely to be implemented if the political and economic climate within the EC is favourable. But for Britain to fail to ratify would have an incalculably damaging effect on the Government's ability to do business in and with continental Europe. The treaty's opponents offer no alternative vision.