Pork-barrel politics come to Britain

Held to ransom: Government furious at being forced to retreat on hospital closure as MPs put constituency before party
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The Independent Online
The Government last night reacted with fury after being caught in the act of reversing a local hospital closure hours after Tory MPs threatened to deprive John Major of his Commons majority.

The two Tory MPs, Hugh Dykes and John Gorst, were given an angry dressing down byAlistair Goodlad, the Chief Whip, after they pursued their constituency interest to the point of threatening to withdraw support from the Government if they did not get their way.

The threat, described by a member of the Government last night as a blatant example of "pork-barrel politics", came to light when it became clear that Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, had decided to allow the former accident and emergency unit at Edgware General Hospital to stay open as a casualty unit with 24-hour medical cover.

The fury of ministers from John Major down was compounded when it emerged that at least one of the MPs had let it be known before the decision was taken that he had threatened to withdraw support from the Government if a solution to the controversy was not found.

There were accusations of "blackmail" from fellow MPs at a tense meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers last night. Mr Goodlad accused the two men of "breathtaking naivety" after summoning them to his office, and of violating the principle that MPs may not threaten a government with a fragile minority for the sake of a simple constituency issue.

At the same time, Mr Goodlad accused the two MPs of breaking an explicit undertaking to Mr Dorrell of confidentiality.

The implication of the rebuke was that other MPs should not think they would get away with applying similar pressure.

The main point of dispute within the Tory party last night over the saga was whether the decision was taken in response to the letter from the two MPs threatening non-cooperation.

Mr Dorrell was adamant yesterday that while the details of a decision to allow a 24-hour casualty unit with medical back-up were finalised on Tuesday, the day he and the Chief Whip received the threatening letter from the two MPs, there was no question of him doing so under pressure from the letter.

Mr Dorrell said that after a series of meetings with local MPs and campaignershe had let Mr Gorst know on Monday night, during a commons division, that he would be focusing on the issue the following day.

Mr Gorst said he and Mr Dykes would be complaining to the Press Complaints Commission because "I was let down by a journalist in the most flagrantly dishonest way" about the revelation that he had made the threat of withdrawing support.