Political Commentary: A way out of the Maastricht maze

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The Independent Online
JOE BLOGGS is a clubbable, down-to-earth, mainstream Tory MP who is fed up with the European Community (Amendment) Bill.

Mr Bloggs has trooped loyally into the Government lobby night after night even though he is no passionate European. The word Maastricht makes his heart sink. He is scarcely ever in the Chamber to hear, let alone interrupt, the long and unreported speeches on the theology of European union from Tory and Labour Euro-rebels. He can spot Euro- bores from several paces and avoids them in the Commons dining room. From time to time he says to anyone who will listen: 'I tell you what, old boy, my constituents can't understand what we're up to. I haven't had a single letter on the ruddy Bill. The sooner we get this over and start talking about the real issues like unemployment and the economy the better it will be.'

This last remark, though wholly understandable and frequently uttered, is slightly absurd; it assumes wrongly that voters are stupid enough to believe that MPs, simply by devoting more time to talking about 'the real issues', will be any closer to solving them. It nevertheless makes a valid point. Mr Bloggs can, for example, be pretty sure of receiving in the next fortnight more letters on tests for 14-year-olds than he has had on Europe in the past year.

The crisis faced by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is one taking place in the 'real world'. The 'nation's headmaster', as in calmer times Mr Patten likes to call himself, is faced with an unpalatable choice. He may go ahead with tests which he acknowledges will be imperfect and which teachers may refuse to carry out, or he may perpetrate the latest Government U- turn. For the political classes this has some nice ironies.

Mr Patten is struggling to bed down the reforms introduced by Kenneth Baker when he was Education Secretary. Mr Baker, assisted at the time, as it happens, by Mr Patten, was responsible as Home Secretary for the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which has so upset the judiciary and the law- and-order lobby that Kenneth Clarke, Mr Baker's successor at the Home Office, is now having to repair the damage. And Mr Clarke just happens to have been Mr Patten's immediate predecessor at Education. In this fashion, ministers on the merry-go-round of government are kept busy cleaning up each other's messes.

However, the point is that compulsory school tests are a subject on which every secondary teacher and a good many parents will have a view. To those who have spent too long in the surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Maastricht Bill, the simplicities of the row over testing come almost as a relief.

So, as John Major celebrates in Huntingdon his survival of an awful year, his mind will occasionally turn to the travails of his Education Secretary. And yet it is a safe bet that the main problem preoccupying not only Mr Major but his business managers will be the one that Mr Bloggs is so sick and tired of, and which returns to the Commons this Thursday. The endgame is approaching now, and requires, on the Government's part, the closest attention. At the risk of boring Mr Bloggs, let's just rehearse what lies ahead. Ministers left for the Easter recess tired but happier than they had been for several months. The reason was the decision by Michael Morris, the Deputy Speaker, not to allow Labour's Amendment 27 on the Social Chapter; and to take instead the Opposition's new Clause 75, which could be debated next week, and which precludes the transfer to the EC of powers under the Maastricht Act until there has been a further vote on the Social Chapter. The interim view of the Cabinet's best legal brains is that the Government can get away with a defeat on the new clause. This is the scenario. After its defeat in the Commons, the Government, unabashed, proceeds with completion of the Bill and ratification of the treaty. At some point - possibly but not necessarily when the whole process has been completed - it puts down a motion praising itself for not incorporating the Marxist, retrogressive Social Chapter. The Tory rebels cannot stomach voting against that, and the Government lives happily ever after.

There are some caveats: the best legal brains may be wrong; Amendment 27 could be readmitted at the report stage; ministers may be misjudging the determination of the rebels and it is still possible that Mr Major could face the choice between ditching the treaty or accepting the Social Chapter. In that case, the third alternative, the sudden-death gamble of a referendum, might look rather attractive.

Here it is worth pausing to consider why Mr Major did not call a referendum in the first place, because the answer says quite a lot about the state of British politics. The attractions of winning a referendum vote on Maastricht are as seductive as ever. The initial jubilation of the Thatcherites, who have consistently called for a referendum, would turn to humiliation, greatly easing the Prime Minister's problems of party management. John Smith and Paddy Ashdown would surely have had no choice but to share a platform with Tories calling for a Yes vote to the simple question: 'Do you support the treaty John Major signed at Maastricht?'- in other words the treaty excluding the Social Chapter.

The Prime Minister did not succumb to these attractions for a number of reasons. The first is that a defeat would have been - and still would be - disastrous for Mr Major himself. Harold Wilson in 1975 made clear his preference for a Yes vote, but if it had been No he probably would have had room to take Britain out of the EC as Prime Minister since the vote was not on his treaty in the way that Maastricht is Mr Major's. Second, there has been, at least since the slump in Mr Major's popularity after Black Wednesday, a real possibility of defeat, since the electorate might have turned a referendum into a plebiscite on the Government's performance rather than on Europe. The press would probably have divided in a way it did not in 1975. Ministers are impatient enough already with newspapers on the Euro-sceptic side of the argument - one complained last week that the Times and the Sunday Times, in their coverage of the campaign for next month's Danish referendum, seemed a lot keener to report close opinion polls than those which showed the Yes camp comfortably ahead.

Third, there would have to be a contentious Bill introducing a referendum, with the Labour leadership opposing on the good grounds that it could not benefit whatever the outcome. Fourth, Mr Major's distaste for referendums is genuine. And finally, even in extremis a sudden decision to hold a referendum would now be severely complicated by the fact that on present reckoning the Commons will almost certainly defeat a proposal for one.

A referendum therefore remains highly unlikely. The Government believes that it is now about to ascend to the summit, and that while the going will be steep it will not be as steep as it looked from base camp. It is just possible that some ministerial voices will be raised in favour of a referendum if the Government is defeated on Clause 75. But militating against it is the bleak realisation that the best time to have gambled on a referendum would have been over six months ago.