Leading Article: Either way, Mr Major loses

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the Cabinet decides today on majority voting within the European Union, John Major will be the loser. Thanks to his leadership failures, he and his colleagues are faced with a choice of two evils - the very situation that skilful political management is supposed to avoid. Whichever way the Cabinet's decision falls, the Prime Minister's reputation will suffer another setback.

Consider the ineptitude of his tactics. He well knew that Britain could not hope to hold out successfully for retention of the present level of votes needed to block certain categories of EU decisions. He knew too that rejection of the proposed increase, from 23 to 27 votes, would not merely jeopardise the timetable for the accession next January of four new members, Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden, but could tip the balance of the referendums in these countries against membership: in the Scandinavian trio, support for membership has ranged from luke-warm to cool, leaving the outcome on a knife-edge. Enlargement of the EU, eventually to include newly democratic east European states, has been a prime goal of British foreign policy.

Despite that knowledge, he talked tough and committed the Government to fight against any marginal erosion of Britain's present voting power. It looked like an unvarnished appeal to those on the party's right who had caused so much aggravation over the Maastricht Treaty, and to the unthinking centre that leaps like one of Pavlov's dogs to defend Westminster's sovereignty.

Having marched his troops to the top of the hill for a fight under the flag of principle, he is now faced with a choice between marching them down again, or further damaging Britain's reputation, influence and weight within Europe and, by extension, the United States. That damage would be particularly severe in the four countries whose entry terms have been so laboriously negotiated over two years - as their foreign ministers made clear to Douglas Hurd at the weekend meeting of EU foreign ministers in Greece.

If the Cabinet decides to reject the proposed formula, Mr Hurd will surely find it hard to face his foreign colleagues again. Yesterday he was, at least for public purposes, not confronting that possibility. But what was hypothetical 24 hours ago may become hideous reality today. Mr Hurd's resignation must be considered a possibility should the majority favour rejection.

The Foreign Secretary is one of the few men of stature in the Cabinet. His departure would be a severe blow to its authority, to Mr Major's leadership and to the wider image of the Conservative Party. The preferable alternative is for Mr Major to rally Cabinet doubters and right-wingers behind the proposed compromise formula, even if it represents a climb-down. That is the right decision for Britain's true national interest, if not for the unity of a party that remains damagingly divided on this issue.