Blair faces 24 hours that are critical to his premiership

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair faces the most dangerous 24 hours of his premiership this month when a Commons vote on university top-up fees will be followed immediately by publication of Lord Hutton's report on the death of Dr David Kelly.

Lord Hutton announced yesterday that his long-awaited findings would be published on 28 January, the day after MPs will vote on the controversial Higher Education Bill.

The announcement was a setback for Downing Street, which originally hoped the vote on top-up fees, already scheduled for 27 January, would be up to two weeks after the Hutton report to minimise the rebellion threatened by about 100 Labour backbenchers.

Lord Hutton, who will send his report to the printer on Monday, has shown his independence by sticking to his own preferred date of 28 January. He did not want the timing to be manipulated for political reasons.

The final decision on publication was decided after prolonged negotiations, with Government officials insisting that they should, at least, be given adequate notice of publication to put the necessary logistics in place.

Although Lord Hutton's decision will deepen the sense of crisis facing Mr Blair, ministers hope the shadow cast by his long-awaited report will persuade some wavering Labour MPs to support top-up fees to avoid destabilising the Government. They will plead with the rebels to make their case for changes to the Bill during later stages of its passage through Parliament.

Blair allies said last night that the timing of the Hutton report would ensure that two potential "bad news" stories would dilute each other by coming so close together. But Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said: "Between them, top-up fees and Lord Hutton's report could seal the fate of this Government."

If Mr Blair loses the vote on tuition fees, he could find himself making a Commons statement on the Hutton inquiry, then immediately opening a debate on a motion of confidence in the Government. Defeat on this motion would trigger a general election, but the Government, which has a majority of 161, looks certain to win easily.

Downing Street confirmed the top-up fees vote would go ahead on 27 January and announced that Mr Blair would lead a Commons debate on the Hutton report about a week after its publication.

But the Government was embroiled in a row with the Tories and Liberal Democrats over their request to see the Hutton report 24 hours before it is published so they can prepare their arguments.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, accused Mr Blair of making an "untrue" statement that the issue was for Lord Hutton to decide. The former law lord said last month that this was a matter for the Government rather than him.

Six parties represented at the inquiry will be given copies of the report 24 hours in advance of publication. They are the Government; the BBC; its journalists Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts; Dr Kelly's family; and the Speaker's counsel, because the report will deal with Commons procedure. All the parties will be required to sign an undertaking not to reveal the contents of the report before publication.

Lord Hutton has rejected pleas for the media to be given advance copies of his findings despite warnings from journalists that the parties would launch a "spin war" after studying the report. He also rejected suggestions that advance copies of the report should be given to newspaper journalists who gave evidence at the hearing, and were legally represented.

On the morning of 28 January, Lord Hutton will make a statement, with television cameras present, summarising his findings and explaining why he came to his conclusions. The Prime Minister will make a statement to the Commons after publication.

The BBC is also expected to make a statement and hold a press conference after the report is published. It has not yet been decided whether Mr Gilligan, whose claims of the Government sexing-up a dossier on Iraqi weapons began the furore, or Ms Watts, the science editor of the Newsnight programme, will be given the opportunity to make public statements.

The bookmaker William Hill was offering odds of 20/1 that Mr Blair would quit as Prime Minister on or before 31 January.

CRUCIAL DAYS

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY

Morning: The Government, BBC and David Kelly's family receive advance copies of Lord Hutton's report

7pm: The Commons votes on whether to give Higher Education Bill a second reading; defeat would inflict a huge blow to Mr Blair's authority

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY

Time to be announced: Lord Hutton outlines his findings in a televised statement in Court 76 at the Royal Courts of Justice

12 noon: Mr Blair answers Prime Minister's Questions

12.30pm: Mr Blair makes Commons statement on Hutton report

1.30 pm: Mr Blair opens debate on a vote of confidence in the Government if it has lost previous day's vote on tuition fees

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