Nick Brown: 'I'm still loyal to Tony Blair,' insists the former chief whip who may yet be the Prime Minister's nemesis

The Monday Interview: Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne East and Wallsend
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In a cupboard-sized office along a back corridor of the House of Commons, Nick Brown - the former government chief whip - pretends to take pot shots at ministers.

The window of his office - which he compares to "Harry Potter's broom-cupboard bedroom" - overlooks the courtyard where ministerial cars pull up. "I have a clear shot from here," he jokes, peering out from the net curtains while pretending to unload a rifle from his shoulder. "This is where the ministers come in."

Luckily, no cars are in sight and Mr Brown's mock marksmanship is purely metaphorical. For if any MP knows where to target Labour ministers it is the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend. Not only was Nicholas Brown a former government chief whip, but he served on Labour's front bench for 19 years, six of them in Government.

But rather than pick off ministers one by one, Mr Brown's energies are concentrated on leading a full-scale rebellion on "an enormous question of principle" for the Labour Party, university tuition top-up fees.

Along with over 100 of his Labour colleagues, he has grave misgivings about introducing a market-based system of funding for universities which, he contends, will inevitably lead to huge fees for students.

Mr Brown believes the change will deter the poorest students from attending the best universities because they will not be able to afford them. This would be a "wicked" policy to pursue, he says.

"If young people from ordinary backgrounds can't get on the best courses and the best academic institutions because they have been priced out of it that is a pretty wicked thing for any government to do," he says

He feels so strongly about the introduction of variable fees that, reluctantly, he plans to defy the Labour leadership for the first time since he became an MP in 1983. "I don't want to vote against the Government, but for me it's a question of principle: to move from, in effect, a European model of higher education to the American system," he says. "I am opposed to that, and others are as well."

The Commons vote will be the last chance for Labour MPs to stop the creation of variable tuition fees, he warns. University experts say fees could rise to £20,000 if the Bill gets through, he says. Lifting the proposed £3,000 cap is inevitable.

"It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Pressure to remove the cap will become remorseless. If we go down this route the logic is that the cap has to be lifted," he says. "People better make their minds up about that now - not assume it won't be lifted and then come over all surprised when it is."

Mr Brown, 53, is far more good humoured and chatty than his somewhat dour image would suggest. But he is angry that Tony Blair has pressed ahead with top-up fees in direct contradiction of a promise in the party's election manifesto.

"I am only supporting the manifesto he wrote. He wrote it and he gave pledges in the House before the election that we wouldn't do this. Twice we promised not to do this."

Mr Brown says he supports Mr Blair's leadership in every aspect apart from top-up fees. As if to illustrate the point, he displays on his desk a photograph not of Gordon Brown but a more youthful Tony Blair.

But he launches a sideswipe at the "people who are influential around the Prime Minister" who drew up the policy, adding pointedly, that "the advocates of this are not Labour Party people".

Mr Brown is a Labour Party person to his core. His involvement stems from his Manchester University days when he paid for his upkeep working on farms, in an all-night bakery and writing captions for racy love stories in the teenage magazine Jackie.

"Occasionally, the characters might be allowed to kiss but there was certainly nothing more promiscuous than that," he recalls. "This was 1970, remember. It was different era; far more prim."

Mr Brown's first full-time job was formulating promotional strategies for the washing powder Ariel and the fabric softener Lenor in the 1970s.

Today he criticises Tony Blair's strategy in launching plans for top-up fees without consulting the Labour Party, particularly after he proclaimed his desire to hold a "big conversation" with the electorate. "It's regrettable that the conversation has taken place after the decision has been made," he says.

"The party should have been consulted, and I think, frankly, the Labour Party wouldn't have accepted it, and it's pretty clear that it doesn't accept it."

When he was an opposition MP, Mr Brown played an important role in promoting Mr Blair to the Shadow Cabinet. But he confesses he no longer fully understands the direction in which the "exceptional individual" who became Prime Minister is taking the party.

Asked about whether he still knew Tony Blair, Mr Brown interprets the question in the widest sense, and replies with a twinge of sadness: "Well I thought I did, but anyway ..."

Mr Brown is one of the Chancellor's closest allies and his decision to rebel has been interpreted widely as a cipher for Gordon Brown's own unease at the proposals. But he denies vehemently that he is an "outrider" for the Chancellor, or even the rebels' "chief whip" - a credit he gives to George Mudie MP, his former deputy in the government whips office.

The mild-mannered MP, who was characterised by a calm demeanour even when confronted as Agriculture Minister with the horror of the foot-and-mouth crisis, is irritated by the insinuations that he is doing the Chancellor's dirty work. "I'm so fed up with that. I think it's so unfair. I am big friends with Gordon and we have discussed it," he says. "Gordon has asked me to support the Government and I said 'I can't'."

He is also keen to quash Westminster gossip that the rebellion is part of a plot to unseat Mr Blair and replace him with the Chancellor.

He does not believe the issue of top-up fees, which Mr Blair has said is a matter of "authority", should be a resigning issue for the Prime Minister if he is defeated. "It is not part of a wider agenda at all," he insists. "The Parliamentary Labour Party will decide this on the issue itself, and I don't think there is a broader agenda, a hidden agenda."

Mr Brown speaks with nostalgia about Labour's early years in power and hopes that Mr Blair can regain the same idealism which helped deliver the 1997 landslide election victory. "He has been a very successful leader of the Labour Party and has done some remarkable things," he says.

"Perhaps if he could find his way back to the inspiring leadership he gave in '96-97 in the run-up to the election and the hopes that he raised then we would all be better for it."

The Prime Minister famously said last year in his conference speech that he had no "reverse gear". But Mr Brown appears to fear that Mr Blair may have no brakes as well.

"Isn't the danger that you just go too far?" he mutters.

Despite his lack of a reverse gear, Mr Blair has performed a string of U-turns, including top-up fees and the decision to re-admit Ken Livingstone to the Labour Party. Mr Brown warns that breaking publicly made promises undermines trust in the Government and confuses the electorate about what Labour stands for.

"The electorate and party members like to see political figures stand for something they believe in and stand up and say so," he says. "How on earth does a democracy work if the politicians are not going to stand by what they said?

Commitment to core Labour principles such as "social justice" are already in question, he says, because of top-up fees. The danger is of Labour losing its direction and idealistic zeal and using the "the Conservative Party as the yardstick by which we judge ourselves," he warns.

"We have lost that engagement and all the idealism that made us," he says. "What I would really like to see is to get back to all those bright hopes, all that optimism, all that idealism which we so clearly had in '96-97.

"It is about us and finding our way back to that rather than trying to second guess the Conservatives - and worst of all be more like them."

Despite his opposition to top up fees, he is generous about the way Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has handled the issue and implies that his hands have been tied. "Charles is doing his best within the parameters that have been set for him," he says. "He was perfectly honest and forthright. I rather admire him for that. He said 'this is it. You are either for it or against it. I am taking him at his word - and I am against it."

THE CV

DATE OF BIRTH: 13 June 1950

PLACE OF BIRTH: Kent

Education: Swattenden Secondary; Tunbridge Wells Tech High; University of Manchester

EMPLOYMENT:

2003: Backbencher

2001 - 2003: Minister for Work, Department for Work and Pensions

1998 - 2001: Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

1997 - 1998: Government Chief Whip

1995 - 1997: Opposition whip

1994 - 1995: Opposition spokesman, health

1988 - 1994: Opposition spokesman, treasury and economic affairs

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