Bottomley gets mauling over hospital cuts

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The Independent Online
Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, was subjected to a severe mauling in the Commons yesterday by furious Tory backbenchers over her handling of hospital closures.

Leading Tory backbench critics emerged from a private meeting with Mrs Bottomley still angry with her decision to close some world-famous London hospitals, including Bart's. She was accused of "clinical vandalism" by Sir Rhodes Boyson, the former minister.

Some Tory MPs warned they would not support Mrs Bottomley when Labour forces the issue to a vote - effectively a vote of confidence in the Secretary of State - after the Easter recess of Parliament.

"She has been extraordinarily politically inept. If the Government put down a motion in support of her statement, a number of us would refuse to support it. She has done herself a lot of damage over this," one senior Tory backbencher said.

Mrs Bottomley faced a gruelling 64 minutes of questions after she was forced by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to make a statement to the Commons. It came 24 hours after she caused a furore by announcing the closures in a written answer. The Tory MPs accused her of refusing to listen. One described her as "Dr Virginia Strangelove". Out of 15 Tory MPs, only six supported her, including her husband, Peter, the MP for Eltham.

The onslaught was led by Peter Brooke, a former Cabinet colleague, and Sir Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister. Senior Tory sources blamed Mrs Bottomley for causing the row by failing to satisfy Mr Brooke over the Bart's closure in a private briefing on privy council terms in advance of the statement. However, her supporters said there was nothing she could do to soften the blow after the decision had been taken earlier this week.

Her Cabinet position was not under immediate threat, but her standing was seriously damaged with Tory backbench MPs among her natural supporters on the left wing of the party.

Hugh Dykes, another Tory critic, said she had not succeeded as a senior Cabinet minister because she had listened too much to the experts and failed to take her own "essential human social, clinical, medical and political judgement".

Mrs Bottomley, however, stood by her guns. "There are problems in the health service in London. That is why it is necessary to address change. To allow the services to fossilise is not going to address the real needs," she said. Sources said she had been anxious to fulfil the legal requirements to consult widely after the publication of the Tomlinson report on the closures over two years ago.

However, campaigners for Bart's are threatening to seek a judicial review to halt the plans.

Failed communicator, page 2

Inside Parliament, page 7