Government averts defeat over hospital closures

Ex-minister among rebels as Bottomley wins vital vote
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The Government last night averted a humiliating Commons defeat over London hospital closures after Michael Heseltine came to the support of Virgina Bottomley with a dramatic warning that backbench rebels were the "Trojan horse" that would let in a Labour government.

The Tories defeated a Labour motion attacking the closure plans by 320 to 308 despite the decision of Peter Brooke, former Northern Ireland and Heritage Secretary, to vote against the Government. He was joined in the Labour division lobby by Sir John Gorst, the MP for Hendon.

The withering attack by Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, on Tory indiscipline was launched in a BBC Radio interview hours before Virginia Bottomley, the Health Secretary, faced the second bruising set -piece Commons attack on her closure plans within two months. Mrs Bottomley, who was helped by a fighting wind-up speech from Gerry Malone, her minister of state, avoided what could have been a terminally damaging defeat.

But one seasoned ministerial loyalist said after the vote that it would not end the gulf between Mrs Bottomley's department and the public over the wisdom of closing local accident and emergency units.

Although the most potent source of last night's threatened rebellion was the planned closure of the accident and emergency department at the Edgware Hospital in North London, Mr Brooke's protest was against the proposals to close the historic St Bartholomew's Hospital. Sir Rhodes Boyson, MP for Brent North, and Hugh Dykes, MP for Harrow East, abstained while four Ulster Unionists joined the other Northern Ireland MPs in opposing the Government. Roger Sims, MP for Chiselhurst, abstained on a second vote on the Government amendment.

In terms that raised the stakes in last night's vote, Mr Heseltine had earlier put all his authority behind a demand for an "intensity of discipline and loyalty", declaring that "to make a habit of dissent from your government indicates a view, perhaps, that you are rather more significant than you actually are".

In a reference to the habit of dissident Tories giving television interviews on the grass outside the Commons, he added: "The College Green hero of today could all too easily be seen as the Trojan Horse that let the Labour Party into power."

Although Mr Heseltine's broadside added considerable weight to Mrs Bottomley's appeal to rebels to back the Government, it failed to prevent the now seven-strong group of Euro-rebels from agreeing last night to continue meeting as a collective. They will continue to take collective decisions on how to vote on European issues.

In last night's debate, Mrs Bottomley repeated her promise in an often noisy Commons that no closures would happen until better alternative services were up and running, but added: "There can be no going back. The issue is not the policy, it is the implementation of that policy. We have a crucial opportunity to prepare for the 21st Century. The price of doing nothing would be to let our services and hospitals slip into decline."

Inside Parliament, page 5