Leading Article: This is the game the grown-ups play

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'WHY is the man who won the Newbury by-election so happy, Daddy?'

'Because he's going to be a member of the British Parliament, dear, the oldest and most respected in the world.'

'And what will he do there?'

'He will help to make laws and he will take part in debates on the great issues of the day. You see, ours is a parliamentary democracy. We elect sensible and trustworthy MPs to consider the facts and arguments and then make decisions on our behalf.'

'What are they doing at the moment?'

'Well, for months and months they've been doing little else but talk about Maastricht. Negotiating the treaty was probably one of the half-dozen most important things a British government has done this century. So Parliament has to think about it very carefully.'

'Are most MPs in favour of Maastricht?'

'Certainly - most of the Tory party, most of the Labour party and all the Liberal Democrats support it.'

'So Parliament will give its approval?'

'Ah, well, it's not that simple. You see, Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to include the Social Chapter, which would allow the European Council of Ministers to make directives about employment rights - hours of work, safety, sex equality, consultation. All the other 11 countries that signed Maastricht wanted to include the Social Chapter, but John Major negotiated a Protocol that says they can have what they want but we can opt out. 'No Social Chapter, no backdoor socialism,' he says. It's funny, because a lot of other European governments that aren't socialist at all agreed to the Social Chapter.'

'But where's the problem for Parliament? They can have one vote on the treaty and then another vote on whether or not to include the Social Chapter.'

'Sort of. Last week the Speaker said that a Labour amendment, deleting the Protocol, should be debated. But now they don't need to have the debate or the vote because the Government accepted it.'

'But the Government is against the Social Chapter.'

'Yes, but ministers thought they were going to lose because Labour and the Liberal Democrats would vote for deleting the Protocol and so would some MPs on the Tory right.'

'I thought the Tory right was very against the Chapter.'

'Yes, but they are also very against Maastricht. They think deleting the Protocol would wreck the whole treaty.'

'Let's take this slowly. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs supported this amendment because they think it makes Britain opt in to the Social Chapter; the Tory right supported it because they think it means no treaty, with or without the Social Chapter.'

'Well done] You've got it]'

'But, Daddy, which of them is correct?'

'Er . . . well, that's the trouble. Nobody knows.'

'But, surely the Government must know. It signed the treaty; it must have told MPs what would happen if the amendment went through.'

'It told them it wouldn't make any difference. It said it would ratify the treaty, anyway. Douglas Hurd said last week that the amendment was 'tiresome and undesirable, but, in practice, irrelevant'.'

'He must be wrong about that. On something so important, surely Parliament has to approve.'

'No, the Attorney General, the chief legal officer, has advised that this amendment changes nothing. We don't know exactly why, because his advice is secret. But I think the point is that Parliament only has to approve Maastricht insofar as it changes British laws. The Queen alone has the power to make treaties with other countries, just as she can declare war or make peace.'

'The Queen?'

'Well, not the Queen really, but the Queen's ministers, acting on her behalf. Anyway, the point is that deleting the Protocol doesn't itself change British laws. The Protocol says that whatever the Council does to apply the Social Chapter will not be applicable to Britain; the Labour amendment deletes the Protocol. But that's just a double negative: it doesn't say that the Social Chapter (which is in a separate agreement) does apply to Britain - '

' - at school, we're told that two minuses make a plus.'

'That's for children. If you become a grown-up politician, you'll learn that words, numbers, plus and minus signs - they all mean whatever you want at the time.'

'I see. But surely MPs can just tell this Attorney General that he's wrong and that they should decide?'

'They have to ask some judges to do that.'

'Judges? Who elects them?'

'Nobody. Surely you know that.'

'Yes, but this is all very confusing. You say that, in this parliamentary democracy, MPs support an amendment, even though they can't agree what it means, and that the Government accepts it, saying that it means something quite different, on the basis of advice that nobody can read, and that we then have to call in unelected judges to tell MPs what they mean. I still don't understand why they can't just have a debate on whether they like this Social Chapter or not and then vote on it.'

'Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you. They will do that. That's in another amendment the Government accepted. But the Government refuses to say what it will do if it loses the vote.'

'Is all this why people have given Mr Major a bloody nose then?'

'It's one of the reasons, but mainly because it shows us the real character of this Government.'

'Which is?'

'Which is that it's both arrogant and incompetent. Now run away and find some green shoots to play with.'