JOHN MAJOR put his leadership on the line and pushed his party to breaking point last night after he had crashed to Commons defeat on Maastricht, stripping him of the immediate parliamentary authority to ratify the treaty.
The Prime Minister moved promptly to settle the issue by telling the House he would table an emergency confidence motion this morning, saying: 'This House has confidence in the policy of the Government on the adoption of the protocol on social policy.'
His mixing of the question of confidence with the terms required for Maastricht ratification made it difficult to believe that enough of the 23 Tory rebels who voted against ratification last night would have the nerve to put Mr Major to the test.
While some rebels said a further defeat would result in the resignation of Mr Major - and not the Government - others would not be willing to risk a Labour government, Maastricht and the Social Chapter that would certainly follow another election.
With Cabinet ministers roaming the corridors of the Commons to threaten a general election debacle for the Conservative Party, Mr Major initially beat off a Labour amendment in favour of the Social Chapter - on a 317-317 tie-break - and then lost his main government motion, blocking Maastricht ratification by 324 votes to 316, an Opposition majority of eight.
The wording of today's resolution would be enough, if passed, to give the Prime Minister the power to ratify the Maastricht treaty - the power that he was denied under the terms of Section 7 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act last night.
But John Smith, the Labour leader, told MPs that the House had tied and that the Prime Minister had been 'driven to use the confidence factor' in desperation.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said later: 'This is a vote of no confidence in the Government, and a vote of no confidence in John Major's leadership.
'Liberal Democrats will continue to vote tomorrow and in the future to give Britain the best chance of incorporating the Social Chapter and against the Government's disastrous handling of this matter.'
With nine Ulster Unionists backing the Government last night, and again today, it would take only five Tory rebels to break ranks for the Government to win - even if Opposition parties hold their numbers.
Earlier, Mr Major had opened the debate with a different note of defiance - saying that he would ignore the House if it backed Labour's initial demand for Maastricht to be ratified with the Social Chapter from which the Prime Minister obtained the special United Kingdom opt-out.
That would have been too much for Mr Major to swallow, and he told MPs: 'It does not represent the true will of the House. It is an alliance of different parties, with different interests, voting for the same amendment for different purposes.' As it happened, he need not have worried.
In the debate, a mix of nail-biting drama and the open wheeler-dealing required to buy off opponents' votes, two former rebels publicly recanted to ringing cheers of loyalist colleagues. Another two, however, intervened in Mr Major's speech to display their continued determination to vote against the Government.
While the debate ploughed on, tense and hard-fought negotiations were taking place with the Ulster Unionist Party. In a direct leader-to- leader call between Mr Major and James Molyneaux, the Prime Minister succeeded in buying their votes with a commitment to 'accountable democracy' for the province.
However, when Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, reported to an emergency session of Cabinet in the House last night the numbers still did not stack up in the Government's favour.
With little more than a hour to go to the 10pm vote on the initial Labour amendment, Cabinet ministers were dispatched with lists of rebels to persuade, threaten and cajole back into line.
The word was that if the Government lost the votes, there would be an immediate motion of confidence in Her Majesty's Government.
The ministerial message was that if the rebels stuck to their guns, and the Government went down as a two-time loser on a confidence motion, Mr Major would go to the Palace and seek a dissolution of Parliament - bringing a second election in less than 18 months.
The threat's credibility was doubted by hard-core rebels.
They countered that Mr Major would be the only Tory in the land to want an election. 'He will be by himself,' one arch-opponent said. 'The Queen will laugh him out of court. We will elect a new leader, and Prime Minister.'
But it would be remarkable indeed if that sentiment - and nerve - survived until today.
Late last night, after the votes, the Cabinet went into its third session of the day to review tactics - and target rebels - for today's debate, starting at 9.30am.
The vote could take place either at 2.30pm or at 4pm - or later still if necessary.
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