Prime Minister John Major won a dramatic vote of confidence in Parliament on Friday after rebels in his own Conservative Party, cowed by his threat to call a general election, approved the controversial Maastricht Treaty on European union.
Major carried the confidence vote in the House of Commons by 339 to 299, a comfortable margin of 40 votes, ending the ratification process for the treaty, which already had been endorsed by Britain's 11 fellow nations in the European Community.
Only court cases in Britain and Germany now remain in the way of implementing the treaty, designed to bring about closer political and economic ties in the community.
The prime minister had put his government on the line in Friday's treaty vote after 23 Conservative rebels voted with the opposition Labor Party on Thursday night, inflicting defeat on the government in another treaty-related vote.
His threat to resign if defeated again triggered the full force of official Conservative Party discipline. Party leaders warned the rebels that they would be expelled from the party if they again voted against the treaty and in doing so brought down the government.
Although the party leadership also made side deals with some of the rebels, it was the prospect of a national election--at a time when polls show the public holding both the party and its leader in low esteem--that pushed the rebels back into line. On Friday, all the rebels supported the government.
"I think the matter is now behind us. Everyone is back in the fold," Major declared. "Now we can get back to our legislative program. The country is sick and tired of hearing about this particular issue."
Marcus Fox, head of the influential committee of the Conservative back bench--the members of Parliament who hold no ministerial offices--promised there would be "no witch hunts" against the rebels.
The rebels oppose the treaty as an infringement on Britain's sovereignty. Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, has been the treaty's most prominent opponent, but as Baroness Thatcher, she now must argue her position from the House of Lords.
The only remaining obstacle in Britain to final ratification of the treaty is a legal challenge filed by Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times of London, who is arguing that a referendum should be part of the ratification process. Hearings in his lawsuit begin Monday, but Conservative leaders have said they do not believe he can win.
In Germany, where Parliament ratified the treaty last December, lawsuits have been filed challenging its constitutionality. A ruling on the suits is expected in September.
After his difficulties of the past two days, parliamentary observers differed on the political damage Major has suffered in the bitter 18-month fight to win approval of the treaty. Some believe that his lack of leadership had been amply demonstrated, but his supporters suggested that passage of the treaty could mark a turning point upward in his political fortunes.
Labor Party leader John Smith declared that Major "paid a very heavy price in terms of credibility and authority."
In criticizing Labor and the Liberal Democrats for voting against the government, Major said they were engaging in a "silly game of party politics." Most Labor and Liberal legislators favor the treaty but insist that the government adopt a "social charter" guaranteeing certain worker rights. It was on this issue that the Conservative rebels had joined the opposition to defeat the government Thursday night.
Major had objected to the charter and won Britain's exclusion from it when negotiating the treaty with other European nations in December, 1991.
Britain has often been pictured as the odd man out in unity-minded Europe, and Thatcher's opposition to closer European ties was partly responsible for her downfall in November, 1990. Britain was the last of the 12 EC members to complete the ratification process.
As the process came to a climax over the past two days, the parliamentary debate was some of the most rancorous and amusing in recent memory.
"Parliament must put this stalemate over Europe behind it," Major declared in the course of a 6 1/2-hour debate before Friday's vote. "I am not prepared to let it poison the political atmosphere any longer. The boil must be lanced and it must be lanced today."
Cheered on by his Labor MPs, Smith said of Major: "He is backed against the wall. He has been forced, in order to survive, to threaten his own party with electoral suicide."
Playing off Major's own words--when he had returned from negotiating Maastricht, he had claimed that Britain had won "game, set and match"--Smith said Friday that the prime minister's performance had been a series of "foot faults, double faults and mis-hits, threatened by a tie-break. Today like some petulant prima donna, he is threatening to throw his racket away."
Conservative rebel Teresa Gorman, explaining why her group finally had to knuckle under, declared: "The prime minister's got the parliamentary party by the goolies and there is really very little option. Either we have a general election or we vote for this wretched Maastricht Treaty."
What Maastricht Treaty Would Do
Here are some of the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty on European union:
* The European Monetary Institute, opening Jan. 1, would be precursor to a Europe-wide central bank, which would issue a single currency. Britain and Denmark have opted out of the monetary union.
* EC nations would work to forge common foreign, security and eventually defense policies.
* The European Parliament would gain new powers.
* All EC nationals would gain the right to run for office and vote in local elections even if they live in a country other than their own.