To avoid humiliation, he risks disaster

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IT SEEMS, on the face of it, a terrible blunder. At their meeting yesterday morning, John Major, Douglas Hurd and Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, agreed on a tactic that makes a Commons defeat on Maastricht more likely. If it happens, the future of Mr Major as Prime Minister will come into serious question, as it did before the knife-edge vote last year. Then he survived. This time, he might not.

Ministers, senior Tory backbenchers and officials were all taken aback when they learnt what had happened. Mr Hurd warned that if the Government lost a vote on a Labour amendment about the Social Chapter, it would not ratify the treaty. If it is a choice between preserving Britain's opt-out on social provisions, or destroying the entire treaty, then the Government, vehemently pro-Maastricht as it is, will kill Maastricht. Or, as the Foreign Secretary put it, 'there is no question of us ratifying a treaty other than the one we negotiated'.

What does that mean? First, that Tory rebels who have been looking for a moral justification for their tactical desire to back the Opposition amendment have now got it. The Government has promised them that their action, if successful, would have the result they pray for. This is a big morale-booster for Mr Major's Tory enemies. Second, it allows Labour and the Liberal Democrats to deny that they will destroy Maastricht: if the treaty is destroyed, it will be because the Government itself refuses to ratify it.

The alternative strategy would have been to attack the Tory rebels for proposing to support a Social Chapter they abhorred. Loyalists had already started to do this: what kind of cynical Tory votes for something he thinks destructive? Ministers, senior backbenchers and party officials had all assumed that this was the favoured tactic. There was confusion and alarm last night when they realised Mr Major was going the other way.

What is going on? Some government tacticians suggested that the Prime Minister's new tactic meant the pro-Social Chapter Liberal Democrats would be forced to back Mr Major, just to save the treaty. There were even stories of a deal on proportional representation.

If that was the idea, it was plain barmy. Tory and Liberal Democrat whips may have enjoyed a cosy relationship over the Maastricht Bill, but the Tories should not forget that the Lib-Dems are the enemy. Paddy Ashdown has ruled out any deal on the Social Chapter in unequivocal terms. If the Labour-Tory rebel-Lib Dem coalition defeats the Government and persuades Mr Major to resign, Mr Ashdown will be delighted.

Even if the Government is defeated, the complex splits among the parties might yet allow the Bill to be put back together in its final parliamentary stages. And it cannot be emphasised enough that there are about six weeks to go before the relevant Labour amendment is likely to be voted upon. A lot of arm-twisting and arguing is still to come.

But the central point is that Mr Major is widely thought to have blundered. The parliamentary arithmetic is agreed to be bleak, even by his closest supporters. Why was he so strongly against accepting the Social Chapter, even as a worst-case fallback, even as something to frighten Tory rebels with? The official reason is that this would require a new intergovernmental conference, which Britain's partners would be horrified by. There is some truth in this, but since France, Germany and other countries resented the British opt- out on the Social Chapter in the first place, I think we could expect them to be understanding about a further change. Understanding? Actually, they would be smirking all the way to the conference.

And that is probably the real reason why Mr Major could not stomach the idea. It would mean a humiliating reversal of his most prized achievement at Maastricht. Whatever a sovereign parliament decided, for the Prime Minister it would be a U-turn too far.

The trouble is that so many of Mr Major's colleagues are already muttering about the quality of his leadership. He retains the personal loyalty and friendship of his senior colleagues, but not all of them have complete confidence in his judgement. The situation is deteriorating steadily. The question of whether or not Mr Major would want to carry on after a Commons defeat on Maastricht is no longer a frivolous one.

I am not suggesting that rebel Thatcherites could oust the Prime Minister, nor that any Cabinet members are ready to move against him. The anti-Maastricht Tories are yesterday's men, yesterday's peers, yesterday's leaders. They matter, because the hardest-core anti-Maastricht Thatcherites are scarcely any longer to be counted as Conservative MPs. Their alienation from the Government has reduced its effective majority in the Commons to a handful. But, although they can tear down, they cannot build.

Mr Major's Cabinet colleagues have generally been too submerged in the crises of the day even to think about plotting. Those who see themselves as future prime ministers have been assuming there was a long game to be played. Men such as Kenneth Clarke and Malcolm Rifkind, having undergone the turmoil of one leadership crisis, are not quite ready for another one. Younger right wingers, such as Michael Portillo, have assumed they had years to establish their credentials and prove solid achievements. Mr Major is perhaps lucky that so many potential rivals are tarnished, exhausted or unready.

Still, he should beware the silent, puzzled and increasingly alarmed centre of the party. There are plenty of ministers and senior backbenchers who will say privately that things cannot carry on like this. If the Maastricht Bill is badly holed, if more blunders litter the months ahead, then such people will ask, ever more loudly, whether the Prime Minister can lead his government successfully for the next four years. For such a likeable man, Mr Major has curiously few staunch Commons supporters; his praetorian guard at Westminster is small. Yes, he has been in deep trouble before and escaped at the last minute. Yes, this complicated kerfuffle over parliamentary tactics may prove a six weeks' wonder. But it could, just possibly, be the beginning of the end.