Coal crisis: the Cabinet wobbles under pressure

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MINISTERS are braced for a retreat on their pit closure programme if Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, fails to win over backbench opponents when he unveils a new coalfield retraining and development package tomorrow.

With government Whips fighting to contain an avalanche of opposition to the closures, an Independent on Sunday survey of 68 backbenchers showed well over half want them halted, pending an independent inquiry.

Some ministers are suggesting privately that the closures should be re-examined or phased in. But Mr Heseltine says that he still sees no alternative to the 'agonising' decision to close 31 pits with the loss of 30,000 coal jobs between now and March. And he made it clear yesterday he expected to win a crucial vote on Wednesday when the Commons is due to debate a Labour motion opposing the closure plan.

But ministers are expected to consider tomorrow whether the strategy needs to be modified in the light of intensive weekend consultations by the Whips. They are also likely to seek an assessment from the Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, of British Coal's chances of winning the test action brought against it on the closure of eight affected pits.

Mr Heseltine's multi-million pound package will use extra cash in addition to the pounds 1bn already allocated, mainly for redundancy payments. Some ministers, however, still fear that the Government will lose the Commons vote on Wednesday. One senior minister said last night: 'I think we should look at phasing the redundancies. I think we ought to do that even if it weren't a matter of votes.'

Ministers are also anxious that, even if rebels can be whipped into government lobbies on Wednesday, they will be using up precious and dwindling political capital that will be needed to secure a majority for the Maastricht Bill. The Cabinet decided last Thursday to bring the Bill back on 10 November.

The extent of the disaffection on the Tory back benches emerges from our survey. Of 68 MPs contacted, 14 declined the opportunity to express their support for John Major and 26 said Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, should go.

Michael Carttiss, MP for Great Yarmouth, said: 'I'm in favour of halting the programme, period. It's bloody obvious you shouldn't close the pits.' Sir Rhodes Boyson, MP for Brent North, said: 'Importing subsidised coal from Germany while shutting our own mines is Alice in Wonderland politics.'

Mr Heseltine's package will include new money for Training and Enterprise Councils to give special help to redundant miners. This follows a forceful intervention at last Thursday's Cabinet meeting by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, who was not involved in the decision by a Cabinet 'inner group' to proceed with the plan.

But Mr Heseltine is also expected to set up what amounts to a coalfield regeneration agency, which could channel funds to attract investment and jobs along the lines of the Welsh and Scottish development agencies. David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Wales, has already allocated new resources to the Welsh agency.

Mr Heseltine is also under pressure to indicate that he is prepared to consider management buyouts to save pits earmarked for closure, as Jerry Hayes, MP for Harlow, proposed yesterday.

Other options, besides phasing the closures, are being mentioned in exchanges among ministers, government Whips and backbenchers. They include the mothballing or reprieve of more pits earmarked for total closure, and a possible six-month review by an external figure such as a High Court judge.

Our survey and the hectic soundings taken by Whips have exposed a wave of anger at the handling of the announcement which threatens to undermine the standing of Mr Major and Mr Heseltine. There is particular anger that 8,000 Nottinghamshire miners, the large majority of whom worked during the 1984-5 strike, are to lose their jobs.

Mr Heseltine has asked to see the restive executive of the pivotal backbench 1922 Committee tomorrow morning, to 'take them through the agonisingly difficult decision'. He added: 'I understand how strongly MPs representing coal mining constituencies feel.'

The terms of neither the opposition motion nor the government amendment have yet been finalised. Robin Cook, Opposition trade and industry spokesman, said: 'The public is not looking for sops for redundant miners, it is looking for fewer redundant miners.'

Backbench poll, page 2

Britain in crisis, pages 15-19

Further reports, Business section

(Photograph omitted)