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Balancing Act for Britain's Major Over Maastricht

By Eugene Robinson
The Washington Post

LONDON

Prime Minister John Major played a game of political brinkmanship in an attempt to regain control of events Monday, as government spokesmen refused to rule out the possibility that Major would call a general election if he is defeated in a vote in Parliament next week on European union.

The willingness of officials to think the unthinkable -- that Major would go back to the voters at a time when his popularity is at an all-time low -- was a measure of how firmly Major has linked his political future to the fate of the Maastricht Treaty, a blueprint for European political and economic union.

A vocal minority of Major's Conservative Party opposes the treaty, but Major has vowed to bring it before Parliament next week.

In reaction to another disputed action by Major, a crowd estimated at 150,000 marched through central London Sunday to protest his announcement of mine closings and to demand aggressive government action to bring Britain out of recession. Polls last week showed him with the lowest approval ratings of any prime minister since such surveys began.

Major apparently has decided to make his stand at Maastricht. Saying that his honor and Britain's economic prospects are at stake, he has defied the Conservative "Euroskeptics" in Parliament by seeking early approval for the treaty.

Rumors that Major might call a general election if he is defeated in a preliminary vote on the treaty began circulating over the weekend, to the dismay of Conservatives on both sides of the issue. "The prime minister's aides must stop bullying the Tory party with threats of extinction," Sir George Gardiner, a Conservative member of Parliament, told the Times of London. "Our duty is to vote as we see the country's interests."

But Monday, in a briefing for reporters, government spokesmen refused to budge. When given the opportunity to quash all talk of an early election -- Major is not obliged to hold elections until 1997 -- a spokesman declined to do so, telling reporters they should draw their own conclusions.

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd refused to "add to speculation of what might happen if the government retreated on this issue," but added that the Maastricht Treaty was "a central part of the government's program and will be treated as such."

The Labor Party is more pro-Europe than the Conservative and in a vote on the treaty would almost be compelled to support the government. But there were signs Monday that the party was seeking a way to justify voting against Major.

"He hasn't got the confidence of his party," said John Prescott, a member of Labor's shadow cabinet. "He certainly hasn't got the confidence of the country and he is not entitled to the confidence of the opposition. So our job would be to vote against such a confidence motion."