Leading Article: Dishonourable Members

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The Independent Online
CONSERVATIVE MPs who are opposed to the Maastricht Bill are toying with the idea of voting dishonourably ('tactically' is too euphemistic a word) for a Labour amendment that is anathema to them. If passed, it would have the effect of ending Britain's opt-out of the Social Chapter of the treaty. Yet they are at least as strongly opposed to the philosophy behind the chapter as is the Prime Minister. The rebels' real aim is to kill the treaty by rendering it so distasteful to the Government that John Major would feel unable to ratify it.

Those contemplating this cynical act are playing a wrecking game that makes a mockery of parliamentary procedure and political conventions. None of the arguments the rebels produce in support of their potential disloyalty is convincing. Take the suggestion that there is nothing novel about MPs voting against their consciences or convictions, since the job of the whips is to ensure that MPs do so when necessary. But these votes are cast in deference to party unity and reflect the will of the majority. In this case the rebels - a small rump of Conservative MPs - would be voting against their consciences and convictions, in an unholy alliance with the Labour Party, which is genuinely enamoured of the Social Chapter.

The rebels are reportedly to be warned that they may face the ultimate sanction - having the whip withdrawn - if they do vote with Labour. They would then be forced to stand as Independents at the next general election. Almost all would, it can be assumed, lose their seats. Mr Major is wise to take the rebels seriously and to indicate that he will have no mercy on them.

There would be a particular justice about the imposition of such a sanction. Those now plotting to defy the whip fought the last election on the Conservative manifesto. However, most will have signalled to their electorates that they were deeply sceptical about closer integration within Europe, which gives a limited moral legitimacy to their opposition to Maastricht. But none hinted that he or she might vote for the most contentious element in the Maastricht package, one which the party specifically opposed. To do so now would constitute a breach of faith with their voters.