DENMARK'S "yes" vote in the Maastricht referendum has cut the ground from under the treaty's critics in Britain and has put John Major's government on course to secure its ratification, probably by July.
The prime minister, whose position at times appeared threatened by months of bickering about the treaty inside the ruling Conservative Party, claimed yesterday that parliamentary "trench warfare" was virtually at an end.
Last June's Danish referendum vote against Maastricht encouraged former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her supporters to oppose the treaty when the government introduced a ratification bill last autumn. In the House of Commons last November, the government came within three votes of defeat by a combination of opposition Labour Party and Conservative anti-Maastricht parliamentarians.
The Danes' decisive change of mind has, according to a senior Conservative backbencher, "taken the wind out of the anti-Maastricht campaign," and "robbed them of one of their most persuasive arguments."
There is widespread acceptance, however, that passage of the treaty will not end arguments about Britain's future relations with the European Community.
All main political parties have said that high unemployment in Europe must be tackled as a top priority.
Sir Edward Heath, who in 1972 led Britain into the EC, said: "We can now get down to Europe's real agenda." The former Conservative premier added: "Our young people know they are Europeans. They know Maastricht is a signpost to their future."
Mr. Major yesterday told colleagues that he expects Queen Elizabeth to sign the treaty into law by July.
A favorable third reading vote, in which the Labour opposition plans to abstain, was expected in the House of Commons today. The Maastricht bill will then go to the House of Lords where Mrs. Thatcher has said she will lead a last-ditch attempt to have the treaty legislation rejected.
BUT Major appeared to capture the mood of most Conservatives when he greeted the Danish result with the comment: "The sooner we have put this debilitating period behind us, the better it will be for British business and Britishprosperity."
He added, however, that he still had "serious differences with several European leaders about the pace of change in Europe."
Disputes inside the Conservative Party about Maastricht have at times severely eroded Major's authority.
In the spring, when argument was at its most intense, he promised that the Maastricht bill would not go to a third reading in the Commons until the Danes had voted a second time. He let it be known that Danish rejection would kill the British legislation.
Sir David Steel, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, called for "concentration now on reducing European unemployment and getting the economies of EC countries on the move again."
The opposition Labour Party intends to go on pressing the government to accept the treaty 's social charter and its guarantees of workers' rights.
John Smith, the party leader, said that Major, by resisting the social charter, was set to turn Britain into "the sweat-shop of Europe."
Although Major's hand has been strengthened by the Danish vote, he will have to tread warily in coming months. Senior Conservatives have warned him that he will lose their support if he attempts to take Britain back into the exchange-rate mechanism of the European monetary system which it left last September.