Backbench revolt over pits spells danger for Major

A survey of Conservative MPs shows that the coal crisis is eating into party loyalty. Stephen Castle reports
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The Independent Online
THE MOST senior members of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee will meet at the Carlton Club tomorrow to mark the organisation's 50th anniversary. But last week's pit closure announcement has cast a long shadow over the lunch. 'It was meant to be a celebration,' said one leading backbencher pointedly, 'not a wake.'

If, as expected, the executive of the committee meets the President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, after the lunch, some tough talking will be done. The committee's vice-chairman, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, said yesterday: 'I am very disturbed by the pace and the timing of the decisions. I would expect the Government to spell out in some detail the reasons why it has to be done at such a pace.'

As a survey by the Independent On Sunday shows, backbench Conservative opinion is solidly critical of the Government's performance. Of the 68 MPs we contacted, 39 want the pit closures halted pending an inquiry. This extends well beyond the 'awkward squad' of MPs who have opposed the Government before and indicates a possible defeat in Wednesday's Commons vote.

Spencer Batiste, Conservative MP for Elmet, said: 'The proposals are completely unacceptable.' Sir Rhodes Boyson said: 'It was never a free market where coal was concerned and both nuclear fuel and gas were subsidised.'

This bedrock of anger will reinforce calls from the 1922 Committee executive for a slowing down or phasing in of the closures. Even some of those who approve of the closures are angry about the timing. Roger Knapman, Tory MP for Stroud, said: 'It is totally unacceptable to tell people on Wednesday that they would be unemployed by Friday.'

One MP accused the Government of sneaking the announcement out during the recess. But if this was the tactic, it has backfired. 'We are all out in the constituencies, where farmers, party workers and branch chairmen - people who have never worried about miners before - are complaining,' said one backbencher.

Clearly the pits decision has become enmeshed with wider disillusionment over the economy. A senior backbencher said: 'If I felt that the economy was going to turn around at 3pm on Monday I would say that this was a storm in a teacup. But it isn't - it's at least a storm in the kitchen.'

Friday's 1 per cent interest rate cut has not calmed backbench nerves. Our survey was taken after the Chancellor's announcement, but 47 of the MPs questioned favoured a further drop.

A majority rejects a Keynesian-style pump-priming package to boost the economy, although 17 do favour government intervention. Chancellor Norman Lamont is still backed by a majority of the backbench MPs we contacted, but their support is by no means secure. One MP said: 'The economic crisis is not his fault, but his resignation would restore market confidence.' Of those contacted, 26 think Mr Lamont should quit and 39 backed him.

More ominous still for the Government is the Prime Minister's declining popularity. Asked whether they are confident John Major is the right person to lead the Conservative Party, 54 MPs said 'Yes'. But 14 declined the opportunity to express support.

Interviews were conducted by James Munro, Nick Walker, Anindyabha Bhattacharyya, Christopher Starling, Sara Naylor and Pauline Moyes.