LONDON — THE British government is coming under increasing pressure to let the people decide whether the Maastricht Treaty on European union should be ratified.
Demands for a national referendum to resolve the most divisive issue in British politics came from rebels in the ruling Conservative Party after they had combined with the opposition Labour and Liberal-Democrat parties on March 8 to inflict a humiliating parliamentary defeat on Prime Minister John Major.
The referendum call was supported by influential opinionmakers, including the London Times, which in a March 9 editorial slammed "the poverty of the prime minister's tactical sense" and questioned his "credibility as a legislator."
Mr. Major's first reaction to the vote, in which 44 of his own parliamentarians deserted him, was to retreat to 10 Downing Street, say nothing, and leave all comment to Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd.
"This setback does not change the Treaty or our determination to ratify it," a weary Mr. Hurd said. "A Treaty delayed is better than a Treaty lost."
Conservative parliamentarians who voted for the government said privately that the defeat had been avoidable and that it would delay the passage of the Maastricht bill for several weeks.
"This was a self-inflicted wound," one loyalist commented. "It will encourage the rebels to seek to humiliate the prime minister still further."
This verdict was confirmed by James Cran, a rebel Conservative: "We shall now fight the bill tooth and nail."
The vote, on a comparatively minor Labour Party-sponsored amendment to the Maastricht bill, was Major's first House of Commons defeat since he became prime minister in December 1990. It followed a Conservative Party conference two days earlier at which Major, in a deliberately public plea intended to rally his supporters, declared: "We cannot afford the luxury of disunity."
The amendment proposed that British members of the European Community's new Committee of the Regions should be elected locally. The committee is part of the EC's attempts to appear less bureaucratic and more decentralized.
The government tried to argue that British committee members should include unelected business people and other official appointees. It lost the vote on the amendment by 22 votes.
Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, says the amendment concerned "an important point of principle," but opposition members of parliament as well as government loyalists say the real aim of the amendment had been to dent Major's authority.
The March 8 vote was preceded by intense attempts by government whips to get the support of the Liberal-Democrats. Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, rebuffed them. Conservatives were summoned from abroad and from hospital beds in a bid to head off the defeat.
Even before the vote, the Treaty bill had been causing Major and his parliamentary managers great anguish. So far more than 100 hours of House of Commons time has been spent debating its clauses, and it is still less than halfway through the committee stage.
Anti-Maastricht Conservatives, known as "Euroskeptics," have been using filibuster-style tactics. The government's defeat will delay the bill's passage still further.
Sensing that they had drawn blood, Conservative Euroskeptics moved swiftly to press home their advantage.
"There is a solution available to the government," says Sir Teddy Taylor, a leading rebel.
"Call a referendum and let the people decide. If it agrees to consult the people, our rebellion will end," he says.
For more than a year public opinion polls have indicated that as many as two-thirds of British voters dislike the Maastricht Treaty.
EC rules require all 12 member states to ratify the Treaty before it can go into effect. The Danish people, who rejected the Treaty last year, will vote in a second referendum on May 18. If they support it, Britain will be the only EC nation that has failed to ratify Maastricht.
Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party and a close confidant of the prime minister, says he is "certain the Treaty will get through parliament" and that "in the end Labour and the Liberal-Democrats will give it their support."
There appeared to be a growing consensus within the Conservative Party, however, that Major's credibility had suffered a serious blow.
"If we are to get the bill through the Commons by the summer, other important legislation may have to be ditched," a Conservative minister notes. "Then the bill still has to go to the House of Lords." He added that the country, which is suffering from recession, unemployment of nearly 3 million, and a juvenile crime-wave, could "ill-afford to jettison measures designed to pep up the economy and improve our society."