England's Major reverses course on mine closings


LONDON -- Facing mass public protests and a mutiny among members of his Conservative Party in Parliament, Prime Minister John Major reversed ground Monday and sharply reduced the number of coal mines and miners' jobs scheduled for elimination by the government.

Less than a week after state-owned British Coal said it was closing 31 of 50 mines and laying off 30,000 workers -- more than three-quarters of Britain's remaining miners -- Michael Heseltine, secretary for trade and industry, told a jeering, raucous session of the House of Commons that the government now intended to close just 10 mines, at a cost of about 7,500 jobs.

Under the revised plan, British Coal will shut down the 10 least-viable of its mines, after a 90-day statutory consultation period. Originally, 27 mines were to be closed outright and four shut down over the next five months.

The sharp turn in policy was the latest in a growing number of embarrassments for Mr. Major, whose government has come under pointed attack in recent weeks for appearing to be adrift and uncertain, just six months after the prime minister led the Conservatives to a fourth straight election victory over the Labor Party.

Although Mr. Heseltine said the case for closing the intended 31 mines remained "compelling," given the fading market for British coal, he acknowledged that the move had been made too suddenly and caused too much dislocation.

As a result, he said, the government will observe a moratorium on additional closings, pending a public review of the coal industry.

The prime minister and members of his Cabinet appeared stunned in recent days by the intensely angry reaction to their announcement last week that they would lay off 30,000 mine workers over the next five months, at a time when as many as 8,000 jobs a week are already being lost in the country's worst recession since the 1930s.

Coal miners and other workers have threatened strikes, tens of thousands of protesters plan a mass march and rally in London next weekend, and newspapers considered to be staunch defenders of the Tory cause have berated the government, demanding that it reverse course.

By backing off Monday, Mr. Major hoped to avoid a humiliating rebuff from Conservative backbenchers in the House of Commons, many of whom have threatened to oppose him Wednesday, when the house is scheduled to vote on the mine closings.

If Mr. Major loses that vote, despite his party's 21-seat majority in Parliament, opposition legislators are likely to seek a vote of no confidence. But while Tory rebels might oppose the government's coal policy, they are almost certain to rally to Mr. Major on a confidence measure to assure that the Conservatives are not brought down, forcing a new election.

The decision Monday was the second time recently that Mr. Major was forced to make a humiliating reversal in economic areas. In mid-October, as turbulence in the international currency markets spread doubts on the future of European union, the government withdrew the pound from a grid that tied its value to that of other European currencies.

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