Tory MPs 'oppose sell-off of Royal Mail'

Hardening opposition from backbench Tories could thwart plans to privatise the Royal Mail, according to a poll on the eve of a vital Cabinet sub- commitee meeting debating whether to press ahead.

A Mori survey suggesting a quarter of rank-and-file Tory MPs want the business to remain in public hands came as Peter Hain, secretary of Labour's trade and industry commitee, challenged Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, to publish an internal Post Office report warning that government proposals would conflict with European law.

The Government's 'preferred option' is to sell 51 per cent of Royal Mail and Parcelforce but keep the third Post Office business, Post Office Counters, in the public sector, in an attempt to avert the break-up of the nation-wide network of smaller offices.

But Mr Hain, MP for Neath and a former researcher for the Union of Communication Workers, who commissioned yesterday's poll, said that because Post Office Counters was to be separated, private couriers and mail operators would gain access to its facilities. 'Under Articles 85 and 86 of the Treaty of Rome, Post Office Counters would be forced to allow competitors access to its unrivalled network of 20,000 local post offices throughout Britain,' he said.

The complications have been disclosed in a confidential report written by Richard Adams, the Post Office's director of corporate planning, who admits that exclusive access by Royal Mail and Parcelforce could not be maintained under the two provisions, thus crippling their profits.

To the dismay of Mr Heseltine and other Cabinet heavyweights such as the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, the future of the proposal has already been clouded by public opposition from 13 Tory backbench MPs and the nine Ulster Unionists. There were more signs yesterday that government business managers would face serious battles in getting the measure through the Commons.

The Mori poll of a random sample of one-fifth of Conservative backbenchers - 54 MPs - shows nearly a quarter supporting an integrated Post Office in the public sector with greater commercial freedom. That would translate into more than 60 MPs who opposed the sell-off, the union said yesterday.

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