Government in Crisis: Backbenchers not convinced by statement

CONSERVATIVE backbenchers were last night demanding that the Government go further and produce a genuine review of the pit closures, leaving ministers still uncertain of a Commons majority in tomorrow's coal debate.

Public reaction to Michael Heseltine's moratorium was judged by MPs opposed to the closures to be crucial. Many MPs have received a flood of mail - 50 or more letters in some cases - opposing the closures, and Elizabeth Peacock, the Batley and Spen MP who has been among the most vocal opponents, said: 'The next 48 hours are crucial.'

Normally loyal backbenchers who had been threatening to abstain, reserved their judgement, saying that they remain to be convinced in tomorrow's debate that the review would result in cancellation of any of the closures - or provide a proper review of energy policy.

Mrs Peacock, Richard Shepherd and Hugh Dykes were among Conservative MPs saying that they would still vote against the Government. Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, said that the thrust of Michael Heseltine's statement had been 'that once the review is out of the way, all 31 pits will close'.

Mr Shepherd, MP for Aldridge- Brownhills, said: 'The Government has lost its way. Why should we have any further confidence that a review by the Government and British Coal will bring about any different decisions?

'All these stories about Michael Heseltine's personal anguish will not wash. The public will determine the response to this'.

Some Tory MPs who had lined up to vote against the Government said, however, that they would not now do so, as ministers argued that the moratorium would do enough to take the sting out of the issue by halting the prospect of 30,000 miners losing their jobs overnight.

Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, who had threatened to vote against, was not satisfied with Mr Heseltine's statement, but said it was 'better than it was', and that he would 'probably be supporting the Government'. Gary Waller, MP for Keighley, said he would do the same. 'The whole question has been left open,' he said.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, a vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, predicted that the Government would get its majority. But Sir Rhodes Boyson, a member of the 1922 executive, declared that 'the Government has to go further'. The moratorium on closure needed to be extended to all pits, with an independent review covering all energy supplies, not just coal, he said.

Hugh Dykes, the MP for Harrow East, also argued that the Government had not done enough. An independent review was needed, he said.

'This just looks like delaying it for a few months. The Government has to provide more reassurance than that. This is not just about the miners, it is about any further dilution in the industrial sector. The Government has to take action otherwise we are facing a slump'.

David Nicholson, MP for Taunton, said that the real issue was whether Mr Heseltine intended to do anything 'about the rigging of the electricity market against coal and for gas'.

One normally loyal Kent MP, who revealed before the statement that his association had 'made it perfectly clear that they do not expect me to support the Government', said: 'Mr Heseltine has dug himself out of the hole for the moment. But I'm not sure it is enough. I'm still thinking of abstaining.'

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