Lord Rees-Mogg yesterday suffered a resounding defeat in his legal challenge to the Government's Maastricht policies, casting doubt over his ability to delay ratification of the treaty for much longer.
The High Court conclusively rejected his arguments, giving John Major a welcome respite from the setbacks that have befallen him this week. The three judges also questioned Lord Rees-Mogg's claims that this was the most important constitutional case for 300 years, although they conceded that it was 'of great moment'.
Lawyers said that after yesterday's judgment, the Prime Minister could be 'confident' that the treaty would be ratified. The only question was when.
Lord Rees-Mogg could still attempt to take the case as far as the House of Lords, holding up ratification until September. But lawyers said the High Court's 'comprehensive rebuttal' of his claims should make his Euro sceptic backers think twice before underwriting an appeal.
The case is being financed by wealthy business people, such as Sir James Goldsmith. Yet even if they were to drop the action immediately, they would still be left with a bill of more than pounds 100,000 after the High Court's decision to award costs against Lord Rees-Mogg.
The former Times editor and crossbench peer was in Switzerland yesterday, leaving his son, Jacob, to fend off claims that the case had been launched to cause political mischief.
Describing such allegations as 'absolute nonsense', Mr Rees- Mogg said his father and legal advisers would study the judgment before deciding whether to challenge the High Court's ruling. They had attempted to argue that the Government acted illegally by failing to give Parliament the chance to scrutinise parts of the agreement.
David Pannick QC, for Lord Rees-Mogg, said the protocol permitting Britain to opt out of the social chapter also increased the powers of the European Parliament. But under a 1978 Act, this required specific parliamentary approval, which had never been given during the Maastricht ratification process.
He went on to claim that the social protocol would alter the Treaty of Rome and, with it, the fundamental law of the United Kingdom. It was 'axiomatic' that only Parliament could change the law, he said.
But Lord Justice Lloyd, sitting with Lord Justice Mann and Mr Justice Auld, dismissed both points. They said it was 'plain beyond argument' that when MPs and peers approved the Maastricht Bill, they also approved the social protocol.
The judges went on to rule that it was for the Government to sign - and alter - international agreements such as the Treaty of Rome. Parliament had never decided to 'fetter the Crown's treaty-making power'.
The High Court gave equally short shrift to Lord Rees-Mogg's third claim, that the Government had unlawfully transferred foreign and defence policy-making powers to the European Council under the Maastricht treaty. The three judges said that the sections proposing inter-governmental co-operation in foreign affairs should be read in the same light as the charters setting up the UN or Nato. 'No one has ever suggested that (they) involved a transfer of prerogative powers.'
Earlier, Lord Justice Lloyd had disputed suggestions that the court was stepping on Parliament's toes by hearing the case. This followed comments from Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, that judges should be wary of infringing the 1689 Bill of Rights. 'We have nothing to support, or even suggest, that this is the case,' Lord Justice Lloyd said. 'In the present case we have been concerned, and concerned solely, with the legality of government actions and intentions.'
The Foreign Office said it was 'very pleased' with the ruling and confirmed that it would not ratify the treaty until legal proceedings had been completed.
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