Government in crisis: Heseltine granted a stay of execution by backbenchers: Michael Heseltine was fighting for his political life yesterday. Nicholas Timmins and Patricia Wynn Davies report

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE strode through the members' lobby of the House of Commons just before noon yesterday with the beginning of a smile on his face for the first time in days. He disappeared into the whips' office.

The chain of events was under way that by the evening had led Lord Wakeham, leader of the Lords, to promise 'a full and open review' of the pit closures.

The President of the Board of Trade had just emerged from a 90-minute meeting with the executive of the 1922 backbench committee, described by some of those present as 'a grilling'. According to one member, Mr Heseltine moved from talking of a review, to an 'open review', to accepting the committee's formulation that it should be 'full and open'.

'A review was what the Prime Minister promised us at lunch on Monday,' one of those present said. 'It wasn't what we got on Monday. It is what we have now.'

It was the beginning of a day of frantic lobbying by Mr Heseltine, fighting for his political life in tonight's vote, as backbench MPs were lined up to see him, singly and in groups.

Mr Heseltine emerged to see Hugh Dykes, the MP for Harrow East, normally a Heseltine fan, but declaring in this case he would vote against the Government. An arm shot out around Mr Dykes's shoulder and the President of the Board of Trade towed him down the corridor to argue his case. Mr Heseltine's appearance at the 1922 executive had stemmed the revolt there, however. Sir Marcus Fox, the committee's chairman, who last week had declared the closures unacceptable, said: 'He has satisfied us and we will all be voting with the Government on Wednesday.'

Mr Heseltine came close to losing his cool for the second time in 24 hours as he turned on his heel and fled from waiting reporters as he emerged from the executive meeting. He was confident the Government would win the vote, he told pursuing journalists.

By the evening, he was giving a 'good account of himself' at a table-thumping meeting of the backbench trade and industry committee.

He had won a breathing space; there would now be a full and open discussion, he said, emphasising that government energy policy should not be dictated by people outside the Tory party.

Mr Heseltine's backing by Tory grandees at the earlier meeting - fuelled by acceptance that he had done enough to avert an immediate crisis as well as the desire to ensure his political future - proved to be a half-way house between Monday's promise of 'consultation' and yesterday afternoon's remarks by the Prime Minister during question time.

Some of those who decided to support the Government viewed Mr Heseltine's performance as sufficient only for today. 'Just as there is a stay of execution for the pits, so there is for Michael Heseltine,' one said. 'He still has to convince us that he has a coherent energy policy.'

Nicholas and Ann Winterton, the husband and wife team for, respectively, Macclesfield and Congleton, were intending to vote against, as were Bill Walker, MP for North Tayside, and Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge- Brownhills. Mr Dykes was also planning to vote against.

Late last night, however, the indications were that the threatened Tory revolt was collapsing. Winston Churchill, de facto leader of the rebels, said he would support the Government today because of the 'significant change' in policy.

'I should like to thank the Prime Minister and Michael Heseltine for going the distance and meeting the key points of concern expressed by myself and other Conservative backbenchers,' he said. 'As a result of this significant change of policy, I shall be supporting the Government in the division lobby.'

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