LONDON — LONDON -- Britain's Prime Minister John Major just barely saved his government last night, his political career and possibly the Maastricht Treaty of European Union.
At least for the time being.
In two successive ballots in the House of Commons -- the first of which he won by six votes, the second by three -- he opened the way for the final ratification process of the treaty in Britain.
The first vote was on a resolution proposed by the Labor Party to delay consideration of the treaty until after the Dec. 11 European Community summit in Edinburgh, Scotland. It failed, 313-319.
The second resolution, offered by Mr. Major, asked the Commons to endorse his European policy, which has the Maastricht Treaty as its centerpiece. This won, 319-316.
Mr. Major thus quelled for the moment a rebellion in his own party against the treaty and Britain's increasing involvement in the European scene.
It took a week of persuasion, gentle and otherwise, among his party's Euro-skeptics to bring about last night's successful conclusion. Veteran observers of the Commons say they have rarely seen a tension level so high or a situation where a government had such difficulty controlling its own members.
In the end Mr. Major was able to bring around a few key rebels. A visibly emotional Michael Carttiss of Great Yarmouth said: "I could not bring myself to do something that would destroy John Major."
If the government had lost, he said, "I believe it would have been the end of John Major. I don't agree with much of what he says about the European Community, but I do believe he is the best prime minister this country can have."
Mr. Major's stock has fallen so low in recent weeks that it is thought a defeat last night would probably have precipitated his resignation.
He has stumbled through one crisis after another, starting with the currency disaster of mid-September, which forced him to take the pound sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The pound's value then fell dramatically against the German mark, finally forcing him to relent on his anti-inflationary economic policy.
Worse for him perhaps was his government's announcement that it was closing 31 of the country's 50 active coal mines, a move that brought hundreds of thousands of miners and their supporters into the streets of London to force the government to announce it was rethinking the decision.
Labor Party leader John Smith yesterday described Mr. Major as a man with "the precise opposite of the Midas touch."
Last night's ballot was not a ratification of Maastricht, but a measure to send the treaty into its committee phase preliminary to the final vote. But having won these votes, its chances of eventual approval are enhanced.
Britain has not had to deal with an issue as divisive as the Maastricht Treaty in a long while. It has been one that cuts in unpredictable and unprecedented ways. It has played havoc particularly in the Conservative Party.
Former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath said with reference to the Tory rebels that he could not "recall any episode in which those who held a different view were prepared to endanger the life of their government."
But so poisoned has life among the Tories become that that seemed to be precisely what some of them were prepared to do: to humiliate the prime minister by defeating his motion even though it never even mentioned Maastricht but simply asked for an endorsement of his policy of playing a "leading role" in Europe.
For Mr. Major and his Cabinet, it was like fighting a battle on two fronts. Facing him was the Labor Party, normally pro-European, but last night insisting that the resolution the government had proposed was a confidence measure, which Labor -- as the main opposition party-- was bound to oppose.
This has "more to do with the internal problems of the Conservative Party than it has to do with the European Community," Mr. Smith boomed across the Commons chamber.
Mr. Major dismissed this as political expediency.
Gnawing at the prime minister's flanks were the rebels, those within his own party who have become rabidly anti-Europe.
Mr. Major, again and again, reminded this Tory Fifth Column of the likely consequences of their actions: "A centralist Europe is most likely to develop if Britain has no influence in the Community."
"The essential question is simply: Are we or are we not in this country to play a central role in Europe's development?" he asked.
No, they roared back.
Fortunately for Mr. Major, a few changed their minds at the last minute.