LONDON -- The long and turbulent campaign for th Maastricht treaty on European union might climax this week in Britain's House of Commons.
John Major has put his premiership on the line in the debate that will open Wednesday on the controversial treaty. Should he lose, many believe he will be finished as leader of the Conservative Party.
So committed to the treaty is Mr. Major that about a week ago he let it be known to reporters accompanying him on a visit to Egypt that if it was defeated, he would ask the Queen to call a general election -- that is, risk his party's grip on the government.
That threat was designed to frighten the anti-Europe forces in his own party. It was considered rash and excessive, and in view of the low state of the party's esteem with the British public, a prescription for a Tory Party suicide.
It has since been withdrawn, disingenuously repudiated as an invention of the press. Now the prime minister is engaged in a mission to win over the backbenchers who, to his mind, endanger not only the basic strategy but the very continuance of his government. He remains determined to frame the debate on Maastricht and its outcome in a broad, even historic, context.
Britain, he argues, cannot reject Maastricht without losing all credibility and trust among the nations of Europe and the world, reviving again the ancient epithet of "Perfidious Albion."
Britain cannot reject Maastricht and ever hope to help shape the course of the European Community, or to draw protection and benefit from the strength that collective action always imparts.
Britain is one of the poorer countries in the European Community. It cannot go it alone in the world without deteriorating further. Those who think it can, and they are many, are deluded, he says.
The point Mr. Major is trying to get across in his new persuasive mode is that every country occasionally faces crucial choices that determine, for good or ill, how its people will live in the years to come. This, according to Mr. Major, is the moment for one of those choices.
Britain made the wrong choice by not joining the EC at its founding 25 years ago. Then, the Little Englanders, the prideful nationalists, won the debate. When Britain finally did get in, in 1973, it was under circumstances much to its disadvantage. (With the Common Agricultural Policy, deleterious to Britain, already in place, for instance.)
The same tentativeness toward Europe prevented the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from entering the pound sterling in the Exchange Rate Mechanism at a more favorable rate than that at which it did so in October 1990.
One consequence of the delay was the assault on sterling of Sept. 16, now known as "Black Wednesday," and the subsequent devaluation of the pound.
It is possible, but not certain, that once again Britain has waited too long, that Mr. Major would have done better to get the treaty ratified shortly after he put his hand to it last November.
Getting the decision he wants now is going to be more difficult, for a number of reasons.
The first has to do with his own stature. It is much reduced. John Major emerged from his unexpected electoral victory in April in command of the entire political field. His party was united, strong and obedient to its leadership.
It is no longer. The passion of the Tory Europhobes within the House of Commons has grown hotter, stoked from outside the House by Mrs. Thatcher and by Norman Tebbit, the former Tory party leader.
They, in turn, have been encouraged by the disintegration of the persona that Mr. Major had successfully projected, as a leader with implacable determination.
He was the man who did not yield to his European partners during the negotiations for the treaty of Maastricht and successfully insisted that special concessions for Britain be written into it.
He was the man who would not accept the predictions of the national polls that said Labor would win April's election. He was right. He emerged indomitable.
At least he seemed that way until September, when, confronted with the currency crisis, he threw aside a promise never to devalue and never to soften his determination to follow policies to wring inflation out of the British economy.
In short order, he devalued the pound, lowered interest rates all the way to 8 percent and spoke a lot less determinedly of `D quelling inflation. Thus it was seen that Mr. Major could be turned after all. This no doubt inspired his opponents, who see the Maastricht treaty as a contract with the devil of European federalism.
Even in his current weakened state, Mr. Major could probably turn back the Tory rebel threat to the treaty if he could rely on the opposition parties not to oppose him. Until just recently, he could. Both the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats are committed to a pro-Europe strategy, and have been.
But now, scenting Mr. Major's weakness, the Labor Party appears ready to make a Machiavellian U-turn.
The Labor leader, John Smith, said that if the resolution on which the House of Commons will be asked to vote resembles in any way a vote of confidence in the government, Labor will go against it.
The measure is called a "paving resolution" and begins the process of the ratification; it is not the ratification itself. But it is critical that Mr. Major win it.
The resolution was published yesterday. It is crafted to win back the Tory rebels, and about the only thing in it that may raise their hackles is the words "the U.K. should play a leading role in the development of the European Community. . . ."
The word Maastricht is not even mentioned.
Having seen the resolution, Labor has decided to interpret it as a vote of confidence and will vote against it. If enough Tory rebels vote against their leader, and their vote, combined with Labor's, defeats the motion, the ensuing turmoil in the Conservative Party could lead to Mr. Major's resignation, possibly even the fall of the government.