Rebel MPs 'bought off in cynical political exercise': Patricia Wynn Davies reflects on a review that had little to do with saving pits

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The Independent Online
IT IS ALL very well for Winston Churchill, Tory MP for Davyhulme and one-time pit closure rebel, to regret, as he appeared to yesterday, not voting against the Government's March White Paper on the fate of 31 threatened coal mines.

But its title, The Prospects for Coal, showed how little it had to do with 'saving' doomed mines. Those prospects were to depend almost exclusively on commercial considerations - and Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had repeatedly emphasised that people would not be forced to buy things they did not want.

Well before the Commons vote on 29 March, it was clear that there would be no brake on gas or nuclear power generation, cheap French electricity and imported orimulsion - the measures the trade and industry select committee had said would enlarge the market for coal.

But government whips were confident only six of the 30- strong group of Tory rebel MPs would vote against them. While some Tories remained uncomfortable about the package - 12 mines 'reprieved', and the rest closed or mothballed - only four defied the whip. Two others abstained along with Mr Churchill.

But the final vote was the culmination of one of the most cynical exercises in political manipulation in recent memory. By then six months had elapsed since the plan to shut down half Britain's coal industry first made the headlines.

A promise of a 'full and open' review of the closure plan had initially been extracted from the Government. But Mr Heseltine argued before the Tory 1922 Committee that any review should focus on 'setting out the full case' for the programme. The review of the 21 least-threatened mines made only one deviation from market philosophy - the prospect of subsidy to help British Coal sell coal beyond the 'core' amounts agreed with the two generating companies. But these contracts, as Mr Heseltine made clear later, needed to be signed within months. The figure of 12 to 15 pits that might be saved under the committee's proposals proved false. It was blatantly used, however, as a test of backbench political temperature. By the week of the White Paper's announcement it was considered that 'reprieving' 12 or 13 would be enough to mesmerise the average Tory backbencher.

When the final vote came nothing was left to chance as the Government bought off more rebels with an announcement that miners with chronic bronchitis and emphysema were to get injuries benefit.

The Ulster Unionist MPs were offered a pounds 10m deal to secure price concessions for heavy electricity users. The political fix had not guaranteed the life of a single pit.