Government in crisis: Miners find new hero in Tory maverick: A Tory woman MP is at the forefront of the battle against closures. Jonathan Foster reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE LAST pit in Elizabeth Peacock's constituency closed a generation ago, but nothing nostalgic has characterised the 55-year-old Tory backbencher's elevation this week to the ranks of coalfield political heroes.

Compared with the predictably strident, marginalised troika of Scargill, Benn and Skinner, the former convent girl's unequivocal opposition to the pit closure programme has been refreshingly terse, delivered from a section of Government back benches which no one could describe as loony, still less sponsored by the NUM.

For this mining dispute, Mrs Peacock has epitomised the outrage felt more shockingly outside mining communities than among demoralised pitmen. 'I had read the leaks, heard the rumours and prepared a press statement condemning the measures,' Mrs Peacock said. 'Then I thought no Conservative government could do this, and put the statement in my bag.'

When she retrieved it last week, her criticisms and demand for a new energy policy formed a powerful confluence of reason and emotion. About 150 letters of support a day, plus constant telephone messages of support, have overwhelmed staff in London and her West Yorkshire marginal, Batley and Spen.

A former Tory election agent, Mrs Peacock is the daughter of a Skipton mill worker. She won her seat in 1983, increased her majority in April when pundits forecast she would lose, and has established enough kudos on the back benches to win election to the executive of the 1922 Committee. She has disobeyed the whips before - on the NHS, divorce reform and the poll tax.

The right-wing now dislike her - though she is personally popular at Westminster - and the left are suspicious of her support for hanging and tighter restrictions on abortion. But she has never shied from taking the side of labour against capital, last year helping a tiny textile trade union in a wage dispute.

During the 1984-85 pits strike, she was close to miners' wives, and felt sympathy for their plight. Had she been born across the Pennines, she would have fitted a tradition of Tory radicalism; in Yorkshire, she has been the party's only stalwart as other local coal sceptics became equivocal after Michael Heseltine's stay of execution for 21 of the collieries.

She appeared live on both regional news bulletins, dressed in shocking pink, blonde, plump, easy to smile - and broad- vowelled. 'She's very nice, very down-to-earth and being from Yorkshire makes a difference,' a miner watching her on YTV's Calendar programme said.

She wants redress for the miners, careful deliberation over a long-term energy policy, and a bigger role for the resource. 'The electricity companies need their heads knocking together,' she said.

As a 'one nation, Disraeli Tory', and a supporter of Mr Heseltine in the 1990 leadership contest, she is more likely to blame previous Secretaries of State for Energy - particularly the now ennobled Cecil Parkinson and John Wakeham - for the fact that she will vote with the Opposition tonight.

(Photograph omitted)