A Bruised Major Finesses Approval Of Maastricht Treaty, but at a Cost

Critics say premier's tactic - threatening an election - will backfire

JOHN MAJOR has clinched House of Commons approval of the Maastricht Treaty, but it is widely felt here that his future as prime minister is seriously threatened. And next Thursday his ruling Conservative Party is expected to lose a key parliamentary by-election.

Mr. Major obtained parliamentary endorsement of the treaty on July 23, but to do so he had to threaten his Conservative Party critics with a general election if they tried to thwart his will.

In the Commons the previous day the opposition Labour Party came within one vote of forcing the prime minister to accept the treaty's social chapter, endorsement of which he has insisted would destroy British jobs and undermine the nation's economy.

In a later vote on a government motion opposing the social chapter, the administration was defeated when 23 Conservative rebels sided with the opposition. This forced Major to call for a vote of confidence in his government.

He won this because the Conservative rebels knew that a defeat would catapult them into a general election which, according to all leading opinion polls, the ruling party would lose. As one commentator put it: "They supported Mr. Major because turkeys usually don't vote for Christmas." Warning to Major

Sir Ivan Lawrence, a leading Conservative House of Commons backbencher, forecast yesterday that most Conservative critics of Maastricht would "settle down" now that Major has obtained a vote of confidence.

But Sir Ivan, who refused to support the government last Thursday, warned that the "high drama" in the Commons had reminded Major and his government that it would be "unwise ever to embrace the Maastricht idea that there should be full political and economic integration" under the treaty.

John Smith, leader of the opposition Labour Party, says the prime minister had been "gravely wounded" by the methods he had been forced to use to ensure final passage of the Maastricht Treaty through parliament. Mr. Smith forecast that Major would soon be removed from the Conservative Party leadership.

A former Conservative minister who served in Major's government until a few months ago said yesterday that resorting to a vote of confidence in the current circumstances would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Gordon Smith, head of the European Center at the London School of Economics, believes Major still has time to recover his authority. "With the Maastricht question out of the way he can concentrate on reuniting his party and tackling the many other problems facing the country," Mr. Smith says.

Endorsement of Maastricht by Queen Elizabeth is the next legislative step, and under the British system that will be automatic. But before it can happen British courts will be asked to rule on the constitutionality of the treaty.

A case challenging the treaty's validity in British law has been brought by Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the Times of London, with the approval of Lady Margaret Thatcher and other opponents of Maastricht.

In a surprise move last Thursday Betty Boothroyd, speaker of the House of Commons, warned the courts that they had no right to attempt to override the will of parliament. Most legal opinion in Britain is that the legal challenge will probably fail.

Major's position as prime minister is likely to be further weakened July 29 when voters in the southern city of Christchurch vote in a parliamentary by-election. Under normal circumstances, the ruling party could be expected to win with a handsome majority, but opinion polls suggest a likely government defeat in a hitherto "safe" seat, thanks to a combination of Major's unpopularity and the impact of economic recession on employment.

Major is the least popular prime minister since polling began. Unemployment, though now falling, still hovers around 3 million. Even a narrow government victory at Christchurch would likely be interpreted as a sign of Major's faltering leadership. Tories losing faith?

John Cunningham, Labour's senior foreign affairs spokesman, says Major's handling of the Maastricht issue was "a disgrace" and forecasts that the prime minister's own party would soon lose faith in his leadership.

Home Secretary Michael Howard says that with the "Maastricht poison" out of the political system, there would be "plenty of opportunity for Mr. Major to reassert his authority." Mr. Howard predicts that Major will lead the Conservatives into the next general election.

Constitutionally, the government, which normally has a majority of 18 seats in the Commons, need not call a general election for another three years. But the battering Major has taken over Maastricht has undermined his position to a point where many of his own backbenchers are hoping for a challenge to his leadership. The favorite among Conservatives is Kenneth Clarke, a pro-Maastricht chancellor of the exchequer.

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