Rebels give Major ultimatum: Row over miners forces emergency Cabinet meeting as Heseltine puts career on the line

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR has called an emergency Cabinet meeting this morning to settle a ministerial row over further funding to cushion the impact of the pit closures. But the move will also raise speculation of a climb-down in the face of a growing Tory rebellion.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, yesterday staked his career on a pounds 100m package of extra help to the mining communities in a desperate attempt to defuse the anger of his own backbenches over the closure of 31 pits with the loss of 30,000 miners' jobs.

But Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, was resisting a Treasury attempt to raid her budget to pay for extra help for mining communities.

Mr Heseltine, who is to announce more measures today, rejected demands for a moratorium on the closures and put his own future on the line during a BBC interview yesterday. 'I am the minister responsible and I have no intention of trying to shirk that or to blame others,' he said. 'I will carry what responsibility is necessary . . . I do not think there is a case that I can see for changing the recommendations I have made.'

Leaders of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, who will lunch with the Prime Minister today to discuss the crisis, are convinced the Government will have to back down or face the threat of a humiliating and damaging defeat in the Commons on Wednesday.

Mr Heseltine and two senior Cabinet colleagues, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, said yesterday in separate interviews that when the facts were explained by Mr Heseltine today, those threatening rebellion would fall into line. All three insisted there was no alternative.

'I don't believe we will lose this vote. When backbenchers have heard what I have to say . . . they will see that the Government is taking considerable notice of what people are saying and have presented a range of proposals which meet the enormity of the difficulties we face,' Mr Heseltine said .

The whips mounted a full-scale operation over the weekend to test the strength of feeling among Tory MPs. But Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, who will also be at today's lunch at the Carlton Club, will be told opposition is hardening across the normally loyal centre of the party.

Eight Tory MPs have said they would vote against the Government. A survey of 68 Tory MPs by the Independent on Sunday showed more than half were opposed to the policy.

Most of the anger was turned against Mr Heseltine and it extended to the Cabinet. Mrs Shephard has told friends she is dismayed at the way the closure announcement has been handled by Mr Heseltine.

John Watts, the Tory chairman of the Commons select committee on Treasury affairs, said: 'If Mr Heseltine can show he has a proper and well thought-out policy and he is prepared to admit that he has made a mistake on this occasion, then his head should not necessarily be chopped on the block, but he certainly has a great deal of explaining to do for getting the Government into this disastrous situation.'

Mr Heseltine's position would be 'untenable' if the Government was defeated on Wednesday, said Winston Churchill, one of the eight Tory MPs pledged to vote against the Government if no U-turn is made before the vote.

Mr Churchill warned Mr Heseltine yesterday: 'Back off - and back off now, while you have time to do so. Throwing extra money into training and redundancy payments for out-of-work miners misses the point entirely. The miners are asking for their jobs - not charity.'

The other determined rebels are: Elizabeth Peacock, Nicholas and Ann Winterton, Richard Alexander, Michael Clark, Spencer Batiste and Gary Waller.

Four other Tory MPs have said they would probably vote against the Government and others are threatening to abstain on the Labour motion calling for a review of the closures. With a number of Northern Ireland MPs planning to vote with Labour, the Government's 21 majority would be at risk.

Thatcherite Tories, keen to settle the score with Mr Heseltine for bringing down Baroness Thatcher, suspect a plot. 'Our constituents are asking why Heseltine is doing this to John Major,' said one leading Tory MP. Mr Major will hear warnings that he needs to get a grip of his government at today's lunch. One member who will be attending said: 'We will have to say: 'Lock the doors'. And get down to some serious business. He has got to pull the Government around. It's get-a-grip time.'

Mr Heseltine is planning to meet the 1922 executive, but a majority at the weekend was in favour of a moratorium on the closures. Members of the executive said it was unlikely today's palliatives would change their views.

In an attempt to reassert the Government's authority, the Chancellor is planning to bring forward his Autumn Statement on public spending to early next month to quell the sense of drift over economic policy.

The pound is nevertheless expected to come under further downward pressure after a weekend of intensifying criticism of the Government's handling of the pit closures, and forecasts of a sharp acceleration in job cuts. City economists warn that the apparent panic with which interest rates were cut on Friday could also drive down sterling.

Mounting alarm among City and academic economists that Britain may be on the threshold of a slump have coincided with a clutch of business surveys pointing to a further collapse in confidence. The British Chambers of Commerce latest quarterly survey will on Thursday disclose a steep fall in business confidence, foreshadowed today in surveys by the London Chamber of Commerce and 3i, the venture capital group. Only the CBI offered a crumb of comfort, with a report that retail sales rose slightly last month. But retailers expect the trend to be reversed this month.

The Autumn Statement is seen by the City as the last chance to regain the upper hand.

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