Political Commentary: Life in the old amendment yet?

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THINGS are looking up for John Major. Tomorrow's figures for Gross Domestic Product, added to last week's news of a fall in unemployment, will enable him to claim at last with some conviction that the recession is over. Who knows, the Government may at last become popular, given the fickleness and short memory-span of the electorate.

So has Labour already blown its best chances of the Parliament? The real turning-point last week may prove not to have been the economic indicators but the conclusion, after 163 enervating hours of debate, of the committee stage of the Maastricht Bill.

It is worth remembering that the political classes' obsession with Maastricht has not merely been a matter of addiction to its mind-numbing procedural intricacies. They also saw the Bill as the one piece of Parliamentary business which seriously endangered the Government or, at the very least, Mr Major. There was talk of mass ministerial resignations, of the Prime Minister leaving office, of the Government being taken to court by its own backbenchers. Opportunities for such drama are rare in any Parliament, even when the Government has a majority of only 20; they are not likely to occur again in this one. Has Labour blundered and, if so, who is to blame?

First, the case for the prosecution. Mr Major had said that he would never sign up to the European social chapter, which Labour favours. Labour could have forced him to choose between eating his words or dropping the treaty altogether. If he had signed a treaty imposing the chapter on Britain, so the argument ran, Labour could claim a huge political victory and one, moreover, entirely consistent with its traditional role of defending workers' rights. If he had dropped the treaty, Labour could denounce him for sabotaging the EC simply to save ideological face and pacify his right-wing.

Labour fumbled the opportunity, the charge sheet continues. It put forward a potentially lethal amendment on the social chapter (27) but then introduced two much less damaging ones (74 and 75). Michael Morris, the deputy speaker, selected the latter two for debate instead of the first; the Government accepted 74 and 75 and the game was up. The charge is that Labour was incompetent, or worse, had actually been colluding with the Government.

The man in the dock has been George Robertson, Labour's deputy foreign affairs spokesman, who, with the backbencher Geoff Hoon, promoted the amendments. Mr Robertson's pro-Europeanism is not in doubt, which was one reason the Government once wanted him to go to Brussels as a European Commissioner. The other was that it regarded him as one of the ablest members of Labour's front bench, whose removal from the Commons could only have helped the Tories.

In the way of these things - partly no doubt because of his pro-Europeanism - Mr Robertson failed to secure a Shadow Cabinet place in last November's elections. The parliamentary Labour party preferred Ron Davies, now the Shadow Welsh secretary, and the man who holds the distinction of making the crassest winding-up speech of the year, in the Commons coal debate on 29 March. He hectored Elizabeth Peacock, bravest of the Tory rebels on coal, then repeatedly refused to allow her to intervene to defend herself. It may sound gratuitous to mention this remarkable exercise in winning friends and influencing people, but it was after 9pm, the sketchwriters had gone home, and there is no reason why Mr Davies should get off scot-free indefinitely.

In any case, it helps to make the point that the Parliamentary Labour Party is no judge of character or competence. And the charges themselves scarcely stand up. First, we have Douglas Hurd's weary word for it that he for one does not regard Mr Robertson as a collaborator. Indeed, Mr Hurd accused him in the Commons on Thursday of having been 'deeply difficult and obstructive' throughout the committee stage. Second, Labour did not think Mr Morris would take 74 and 75 instead of 27. It was Jack Cunningham, Mr Robertson's immediate boss, who told the Commons on 19 April that 74 and 75 could not 'reasonably' be regarded as alternatives to 27. Finally, one of the two new clauses, 74, could prove a little more dangerous than it has been given credit for.

It does, after all, provide for a full vote on the social chapter before the treaty is ratified. The whips have already begun warning the Tory Euro-rebels that Mr Major would find it very hard, if not impossible, to ignore a Commons majority in favour of the social chapter. Further, Mr Hurd last week conspicuously failed to endorse Norman Lamont's budget day promise that Britain would 'never' sign the social chapter. Perhaps, after all, the Government would rather have the treaty with the social chapter than no treaty at all. For this reason, the Tory rebels probably will end up by toeing the Government line - but they will be doing so because they disbelieve an explicit promise given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There is yet another possibility. This is that 27, which merely deletes the protocol allowing Britain to opt out of the chapter, and which the rebels still find attractive, could come back. Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, has to decide whether to readmit during the report stage, which begins in 10 days' time, an amendment which her deputy rejected during the committee stage.

Here, Labour can be accused of error. On Wednesday, a motion of censure on Mr Morris for refusing amendment 27 was heavily defeated, thus making it more difficult for Ms Boothroyd to reverse his decision. But that is the fault not of Labour's front bench but of the Eurosceptic supporters of Tony Benn who pressed it to a vote. Nevertheless, Ms Boothroyd is known to be considering the issue carefully and is studying the precedent set by Mr Speaker King, who indicated that any amendment tabled in the name of the leader of the Opposition should normally be debated.

There is a final charge: that Labour adopted the wrong strategy from the start and should have united with the Tory rebels in trying to force a referendum. But that risked abandoning the pro- Europeanism to which Neil Kinnock had painfully converted the party and, with it, John Smith's reputation for unswerving consistency on the issue. And the strongest Labour pro-Europeans might have revolted even to the extent of outnumbering the Tory rebels and thus allowing the Government to win its Bill with Labour as embarrassingly split as the Tories. Then, if a referendum had taken place, Mr Smith would have had to join Mr Major on the 'yes' campaign trail. Finally, it is not clear that the electorate would have greeted a referendum with unreserved enthusiasm: certainly, the Tory rebels' much-vaunted petition has been a flop, attracting nothing like the millions of signatures expected.

So Labour has emerged with some significant, if relatively minor, victories over the Government (on the commitee of the regions and the accountability of the Governor of the Bank of England for example), with the party and its credibility on Europe intact, and with a couple more chances of endangering the Government's stance on the social chapter. That is probably as much as Mr Robertson and his colleagues could have hoped for.