JOHN MAJOR has decided to stake his credibility as prime minister on persuading the House of Commons to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on European unification within the next four months.
If he fails, leading members of the ruling Conservative Party concede that he will have little option but to resign.
Mr. Major decided to assail critics of the Maastricht accord and of his government's handling of last month's sterling crisis after an emergency meeting of senior ministers at which he gained Cabinet endorsement of a go-for-broke strategy.
He will spell out the reasons for his determined stand when Conservatives open their annual party conference in Brighton tomorrow. Meanwhile, parliamentary whips have received instructions from Downing Street to begin applying pressure to Conservative Commons members who are either lukewarm toward the Maastricht accord, or downright hostile.
Major will face the Conservative Party at a moment when his personal popularity is at its lowest ebb since he succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister 22 months ago. According to a Mori poll, people unhappy with his performance rose from 46 percent before the forced devaluation of the pound on Sept. 16 to 60 percent by the middle of last week.
As the Conservatives prepared for this week's Brighton conference, there were unmistakable signs that Major would be given a rough ride, largely because economic indicators promised no respite from the deepening recession.
Lord Tebbit, a former party chairman strongly opposed to the Maastricht Treaty, said: "This conference will have its share of fireworks. It's going to be a post-devaluation, deep-recession, no-sign-of-recovery conference."
A senior party source privately concedes that Major had been forced to "come off the fence" over Maastricht and confront the 70 or more Conservative MPs who are unhappy with the treaty.
The same source says Major has adopted a "high-risk strategy" which, if it goes wrong, will probably mean his having to resign the premiership.
The first part of Major's strategy will consist of a speech to the conference next Friday stressing the need for Britain to play a full part in European cooperation. The conference slogan will be "Taking Britain Forward," and the debate on Europe is tomorrow.
Major will then chair an emergency meeting of European Community leaders in Birmingham on Oct. 16 at which he will press the 12 nations to endorse moves to limit the power of the EC bureaucracy in Brussels - one of the main demands of Conservative Euroskeptics.
Then, when MPs return from vacation on Oct. 19, he will place a Maastricht ratification bill before the Commons. Downing Street sources say there will be an early "paving debate" with MPs asked to approve the principles of Maastricht. The bill will then be debated in committee, with wavering Conservatives under heavy pressure to support it, clause by clause.
Major's decision to throw his prestige behind the Maastricht Treaty bill came within hours of his meeting last Wednesday with French President Francois Mitterrand and a lengthy telephone conversation with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
British government sources said both EC leaders had urged him to adopt a firm stand on ratification, and warned him that if the legislation fails, Britain will be consigned to the "slow lane" of European integration.
Last week Major confirmed that Britain would remain out of the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) "for the foreseeable future." But in an interview with the pro-Conservative Sunday Express yesterday the prime minister warned Britons that staying out could be costly. He said that leaving the ERM meant Britain had "a less satisfactory counterinflationary policy than we used to have. Unpleasant consequences will stem from that."
Higher interest rates might be needed to protect sterling, and there would be heavy curbs on public spending, Major said.
This weekend Labour Party strategists were trying to decide how best to exploit Major's difficulties when Parliament reassembles.
According to one Labour source, the party is unlikely to oppose the Maastricht bill outright. Instead it will demand British adherence to the EC's social charter on workers' rights, from which Major won an opt-out last December.
"That way Major would get the bill through Parliament - but on Labour's terms," the source says.