LONDON — BRITAIN'S prime minister, John Major, squeaked home in a vote in the British Parliament on the Maastricht Treaty on closer European ties. His government survived a rebellion by some of its own members in a vote of 319 to 316 in the House of Commons.
Europe is an issue that has split the ruling Conservative Party for two generations. During Margaret Thatcher's years as prime minister, every domestic political crisis that she faced had a European dimension. It was the issue that finally led to her downfall.
Euro-enthusiasts hope that the Commons vote, close as it was, signals the end of the worst of the internecine battles. Politicians all over Europe heaved a huge sigh of relief after the vote to put ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European unity on the Parliament's agenda. European Community President Jacques Delors expressed satisfaction at the vote, saying he can't imagine that Mr. Major would lose the ratification vote.
A leading Conservative member of the European Parliament, James Elles, said from Brussels after the vote, "The big remaining doubt had been, would Britain ratify Maastricht? Three or 30 votes, it doesn't matter. We can now be reasonably confident that by July 1, 1993, Maastricht will be ratified."
But the Euroskeptics within the Conservative Party say they will fight on. The Maastricht Treaty on European unification must still go through all of the stages of lawmaking in the British Parliament. A leading anti-Maastricht Conservative in Parliament, Bill Cash, promised a rear-guard action. Speaking after the vote, he said, "We will fight extremely hard. The latest poll shows only 28 percent popular support for the treaty. We have enormous support both in the country and in Parliament."
The prime minister had staked everything on winning this debate. A few hours before it started, a leading Conservative minister, Michael Heseltine, told wavering members of his party that a result that went against the government would be a vote of "incalculable destructiveness."
To secure victory, top government ministers went on what became known as a "charm offensive," which some charge was heavy-handed. One member of Parliament was reported to have been reduced to tears because of the pressure. Another said he was almost frog-marched into the government lobby by the prime minister and another senior minister.
Seven months after his general-election victory, Major is a prime minister with considerable difficulties. A former Cabinet colleague, onetime Secretary for Transport Lord Cecil Parkinson, who was earlier Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party chairman, was sharply critical of Major. "The buck stops with the prime minister," he said. "All governments make mistakes and miscalculations, but this one seems to make a string of them."
MAJOR is in deep trouble with voters on issues besides Europe. Hours after the government's narrow win Wednesday, he and his Cabinet sat down to finalize where the ax will fall in massive controversial cuts in public spending. In addition, Major's credibility has not recovered from the battering it took when his economic policy collapsed in September and Britain had to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
The morning after the Maastricht debate, the Conservative Times newspaper warned in an editorial: "John Major's nightmares are not behind him yet. Even though he narrowly squeaked through, last night's result ... was a bad rebuff."
The paper continued, "Major's hold on the premiership, and his government's credibility will be precarious. The prime minister must neutralize the issue of Europe and turn his attention back to what most preoccupies the country: the economy. If he needs reminding, George Bush has just lost an election for allowing himself to appear distracted by foreign policy."
Another Euroskeptic, former minister and now a member of the House of Lords, Lord Norman Tebbitt, accepted that Maastricht would now get through. He commented, "Probably, at the end of the day, the prime minister will secure the Maastricht Treaty. But the best thing that ministers can say about it is `Don't worry, it's so riddled with holes and faults, it's impossible for it to be put into operation.' "
The Euro-enthusiasts are optimistic that December's Community summit in Edinburgh will be a success. European Parliamentarian Elles said not even the Danish rejection of the treaty in a referendum last June should continue to be a difficulty. "If the Community finds itself with 11 countries who have ratified, and one which is well on the way," he said, "it can afford to be rather more flexible over the position of that one [Denmark]."
But Major is not out of the woods. His government has a majority of 21 in Britain's House of Commons. In the Maastricht debate, 26 of his own people voted against him. Up to 10 abstained. He got home only with the help of the minority centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, who voted with him.