20 FEBRUARY 1993, Page 6


Never mind what the lawyers say: this is a moral question


he normally loyal minister was abnor- mally honest. 'We've done this,' he said of the statement that the Maastricht Treaty would be ratified regardless of how MPs voted on the social protocol, `to save the Government from humiliation.' But the Government is already humiliated. Mr Garel-Jones, the Minister for Europe, had twice led the Commons to believe that if the social protocol — Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter — were voted down, the Treaty could not be ratified. However Sir Nicholas Lye11, the Attorney- General, has belatedly said that it can be ratified because the social protocol does not change British law. That the Commons' view on the protocol may be ignored shows the moral nadir has still not been plumbed.

The Tory hall of shame is distinguished. It starts with some brown-nosing back- benchers. Their incapacity for independent thought was exploited by the whips last week. Some were enlisted to spread propa- ganda about the harmful effects of reject- ing the protocol. Then, just as willingly, they were enlisted when the new advice arrived to announce the harmless effects of rejection. The rebels, for the record, had held the view given in the new advice since before Mr Hurd revealed it on Monday.

Mr Garel-Jones was already in the depar- ture lounge and is no doubt longing for his flight to be called early. Taking his earlier line on ratification as gospel, two senior ministers — Mr Michael Howard QC and Mr Kenneth Clarke QC, both proven lawyers — had repeated it in the strongest terms on television, Mr Clarke only 26 hours before Mr Hurd's statement. Mr Clarke has an excuse: he is famous for never reading anything. But Mr Howard is famed for attention to detail. A week ago he denounced Lord Tebbit for saying that rejection of the social protocol would not impose the social chapter. No wonder Lord Tebbit wants an apology. As Mr Howard is one of the more honourable Cabinet minis- ters, Lord Tebbit might even get one.

The Foreign Secretary has never resorted to lying or cowardly behaviour to ratify Maastricht. His fault was that he was taken in by his officials. The same Foreign Office lawyers who distinguished themselves over the Falkland Islands question, the Single European Act, and countless minor Euro- pean matters on which they have coun- selled submission have now been disowned by their Secretary of State. The incompe- tence is breathtaking. The amendment so (allegedly) wrongly interpreted has been on the order paper for nine months. Only when all other options are closed does the Government find another opinion, and this time one that, coincidentally, works in its favour. As he suffered the derision of the Commons, Mr Hurd looked like one who wished he could resign. The shame to him, as a decent man, must be intense. But if he went, the real spivs would be exposed; which brings us to the Prime Minister.

Before he knew that the Attorney-Gen- eral had given him a way out, Mr Major was facing a dilemma. He had bungled by allowing Mr Hurd to speak last week of the `chaos' that would result from rejection of the protocol. This gave a green light to the rebels to vote with Labour. The rebels set about convincing colleagues of what the Attorney has now confirmed, that rejecting the protocol entails no such consequences. Fearing defeat, Mr Major kept quiet. He has learned the lesson of his pro-ERM rhetoric of last summer. It does .not do to pin one's colours too forcefully to any given mast, least of all when the ship is sinking.

However, his news management let him down. Somebody in the Foreign Office, in a panic, started the story about Mr Major by- passing Parliament to ratify the Treaty if the Commons rejected the social protocol. Any competent Prime Minister would have seen the effects of such Cromwellian behaviour a mile off. Yet nothing was done to counteract it until last Monday, after the Sunday papers had further damaged Mr Major's credibility by running the story stri- dently. Mr Gus O'Donnell, his press secre- tary, was blamed by many lobby correspon- dents for the failure to squash the story; but Mr O'Donnell is only as good as the infor- mation his boss gives him, and Mr Major ceased to have a clue some time ago. It was the second weekend running that news mis- management had caused a minister to give what amounted to an emergency statement following Sunday newspaper stories: Mr Portillo's spending review was also leaked.

This reinforces the view that Mr Major, in the words of one senior minister, `simply hasn't got a plan. He just lurches from one day to the next, hoping for some good breaks.' But it is not just about compe- tence. The dividing line between incompe- tence and sleaze is a fine one, and the Gov- ernment is crossing it. Mr Hurd was honest enough to admit his department's incomPe" tence. However, other ministers attacked as `cynical' the rebels' attempt to wreck the treaty. Their own cynicism is such that theY, are prepared to bend the constitution and put up two fingers to Parliament to pass it. This argument is not, as Mr Hurd claims' about the best interests of Britain. It IS about the survival of a prime minister for whom the history books will not be pleas.' ant reading. Ministers fail to see how their evasions of responsibility since wh.de Wednesday have eroded respect for Pollrl: cians in the eyes not just of the public, be of Tory supporters. This week's sliPPir!,, and sliding is entirely consistent. The public must hope for the Opposition to do its inu. However, Labour's stars deemed it One important to have a shadow cabinet meet" ing than to be in the Commons when in` Hurd made his statement. Therefore, as often in the recent past, it is left to an inter' nal opposition of disaffected Tory MPS t0 seek to expose the Government's faults. Sir Nicholas Lyell's advice is not new" sarily final. The Matrix Churchill case, °` which we shall yet hear more, has alreadl called his opinions into question The rebel backbenchers are now devising an amen,' ment on making officials of the propose:, European Central Bank electoral accountable, rather than being appointed under some pseudo-royal perogative. Ridley, in his noted interview with Tht Spectator in 1990, originated this port,' That would alter the treaty and could wreck the Bill. It might even be beyond adjudia tion by Sir Nicholas that Parliament's views, on the question are irrelevant. Mr Major, behaviour this week has simply redoubled the rebels' desire to cripple the Treaty. _A Ultimately this is a moral, and not a legal question. The Government rashly talks LW its image; before White Wednesday there were briefings that leaving the ERM would be a resigning matter; when it happened no one resigned. Mrs Edwina Currie even seemed to hint on Newsnight that Mr Mal°r might resign if the protocol, his great sup' cess in negotiating Maastricht, were voted down. No one believes this. Yet he shook., see that if his backbenchers helped den it, it would negate his only `triumph' statesmanship. We do not need Mrs Cutn; to tell us that if there is anything such as resigning matter, that might be it.