Leading Article: These follies are serious

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The Independent Online
THE drama set in motion by Labour's Maastricht treaty Social Chapter amendment is shot through with absurd and contradictory elements. Labour has always believed that Britain should sign up to the chapter, which it sees as defending the interests of working people. Yet it knows that if its amendment revoking Britain's opt-out were passed, the treaty - in which it also believes - would almost certainly be wrecked. So for a modest gain there would be a much greater loss. The Liberal Democrats' position is similar. They, too, intend to vote for the amendment.

There would be no chance of it being adopted were it not for the threat of an unspecified number of Euro-rebel Tory MPs also supporting it. Their position is precisely the opposite: they hate the treaty and they hate the Social Chapter, but are prepared to support the latter in order to kill the former.

They were urged to rebel yesterday by one of their spiritual leaders, Lord Tebbit, who called the treaty 'that foul abomination, that running sore of Britain's politics', yet went on to accuse Jacques Delors of being xenophobic and paranoiac - this from a man who also said that political union 'cannot be other than to be ruled by foreigners'. Lord Tebbit probably did the Government a favour by going so far over the top.

The vote itself could still be as much as two months away. So the Prime Minister and the whips have plenty of time to work on the potential dissidents, and the public is likely to become very angry at what looks like cynical Westminster manoeuvring. Yesterday's initial reactions from John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, seemed likely to egg on the potential rebels. Mr Major's insistence that there was no prospect of the Government being defeated rang hollow, and his confidence was obviously not shared by other cabinet members.

Mr Hurd's statement that the Government would not ratify a treaty which included the Social Chapter - because it would contain 'legislation, proposals, ideas that we think are destructive to British jobs' - must have delighted the Europhobes. It appeared to confirm that passing the amendment would indeed wreck the treaty, thus ensuring the success of their plot. It also seemed to contradict official guidance that the amendment could be overturned in the Lords.

It is depressing to contemplate the effect all this will have on Britain's already battered reputation on the Continent. It was pathetic enough that last November the Government should have had to promise Tory rebels that the final vote on the Maastricht ratification Bill would not take place till after the second Danish referendum. At least it then seemed fairly certain that the Bill would secure acceptance, even if only after much wrangling. Now, thanks to Labour's ingenious (if ultimately disingenuous) amendment, there seems to be a real possibility that the entire treaty could be killed.

It is hard to see how Mr Major could survive such a defeat. His reputation rests on his skills as a political operator and his appeal as a man of the people. If he cannot persuade members of his own party to support him on a make or break vote, his credibility both at home and abroad will be destroyed. The damage to Britain's position when a successor treaty came to be negotiated would be incalculable. The stakes could hardly be higher.