Major survives governing challenge by slim margin

November 05, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major has narrowly survived the most serious challenge his government has faced, in a parliamentary debate on the question of European union.

By a margin of just three votes in the 651-member House of Commons yesterday, the government pushed through a motion giving the go-ahead to consider a bill that would ratify two treaties on political and economic union.

"I don't believe it is credible for Britain to sit on the sidelines and let other people determine the future of Europe," Mr. Major told a packed House.

Earlier, the government defeated by a six-vote margin a Labor Party amendment that would have delayed consideration of the bill until after a European summit meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Dec. 11-12.

Defeat for Mr. Major in the vote probably would have so undermined his authority that he would have been forced to resign.

Despite Mr. Major's public show of confidence, government officials said only shortly before the vote that they were unable to predict the outcome.

The principal challenge to the prime minister came from an unreconciled group of right-wingers in his own Conservative Party who see the treaties as an unwarranted in fringement on British sovereignty. The rebels, who had the backing of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, initially numbered about 40 -- enough to defeat the government.

Within the Conservative Party, opposition to the government appeared to be motivated partly by hostility to the idea of European union and partly by a small minority of members who want to drive Mr. Major from office.

But under intense pressure from the government, some of the rebels switched their support to the government or abstained, enabling Mr. Major to squeak through.

The Labor Party, although favoring European union, saw the issue as a vote of confidence in Mr. Major and instructed its 269 members to vote against the government. But the Liberal Democrats, with 20 seats in Parliament, backed Mr. Major because they also favor European union.

The vote was technically unnecessary, but Mr. Major insisted on holding it to force a showdown with the rebels. Officials said Mr. Major, whose government has reeled from a series of policy retreats in the past two months, felt he needed the vote to shore up his authority before the Edinburgh summit.

A formal debate on the bill will begin Friday; it then will go to a Commons committee for consideration. Further attempts at amending the bill are expected there, and a final vote on ratification of the treaties isn't likely before early next year.

Officials said that, in coming months, the government will issue a booklet explaining the terms of the union treaties to voters. They said there has been much misinformation about what the treaties represent.

The central issue for Britain, they said, is jobs and investment by foreign companies. Much of this investment is dependent on Britain's playing a full role in community affairs, they said.

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