Blair faces revolt on two fronts

Queen's Speech will lead to battles with Labour backbenchers and the House of Lords
Click to follow

Tony Blair risked a head-on confrontation with Labour MPs yesterday when the Queen's Speech included his controversial plan to allow universities to charge top up-fees but omitted a Bill to ban fox hunting.

The Government's programme for what is expected to be the final full parliamentary session before the next general election will also provoke fierce clashes between the Commons and the House of Lords over plans to abolish the 92 remaining hereditary peers, forming an all-appointed second chamber.

Mr Blair tried to woo Labour MPs by promoting the package as being in line with Labour's traditional agenda of "fairness" and social justice. He pointed to plans to provide child trust funds worth up to £500 for every new-born baby, new rights for gay and lesbian couples, action designed to prevent child abuse scandals and protection for employees when company pension schemes collapse.

But Labour backbenchers reacted coolly to the Queen's Speech after the Government offered no concessions over its flagship Higher Education Bill, which would allow universities to charge top-up fees of £3,000 a year. An immediate revolt will be launched today when Labour MPs will publish a Commons motion urging the Government to think again about variable top-up fees. By last night, it had been signed by more than 120 Labour MPs ­ enough to defeat the proposal, which the Tories and Liberal Democrats also oppose.

Ian Gibson, the Labour MP who has tabled the motion, said: "This is the real battle. We shall fight to the death. A lot of people are amazed that the Government has not listened." Paul Farrelly, one organisers of the campaign, said the revolt was growing because 15 MPs who had not signed previous Commons motions on fees, including the former cabinet ministers Clare Short, Robin Cook, Chris Smith and Nick Brown, had done so this time.

The disquiet among Labour backbenchers was evident when Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, faced a torrent of criticism at a private meeting of MPs over the failure to reintroduce the Hunting Bill, which was blocked by the Lords in the previous session. They accused the Government of a "breach of faith" and attacked Mr Blair's "refusal" to implement a pledge made in the party's 2001 manifesto.

The Prime Minister told the Commons the hunting issue would be resolved before the next general election. He rejected pressure from some ministers to make a promise in the Queen's Speech, saying he did not want to overshadow measures that mattered more to the voters than hunting.

Mr Blair is believed to intend to push through a ban next summer or autumn, if necessary by using the Parliament Act, which allows the Government to override the Lords.

Another area of controversy will be a Bill to clamp down on bogus asylum-seekers, including curbs on legal aid and streamlining the appeals process. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said his party would oppose the Bill's "despicable" proposal to put into care the children of asylum-seekers.

In a powerful Commons performance, Mr Howard said: "After six and a half years, this is a Prime Minister who has lost his grip and a Government which has lost its way. They are running out of steam and they know it." He added: " They have run out of ideas, they have run out of money and they are running out of time."

Mr Blair accused Mr Howard of making an "utterly negative" speech. He said the Queen's Speech would allow the country to meet the challenges of the future "on the basis of opening up opportunity to all". Defending the top-up fees, he said: "I believe strongly the proposed reforms on university funding are vital ... to keep Britain at the top economically and not put all the burden on the general taxpayer."

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "This was a tired Queen's Speech from a tired government." He said it would not stop the public's sense of disappointment turning to despair, and attacked the new asylum curbs as "more than a hint of cheap populism".

Ministers said the weighty package of 23 Bills and seven draft measures showed Labour has not run out of steam. Other measures include plans to strengthen Britain's ability to cope with a terrorist attack. A second Bill on the Lords will replace the law lords with a Supreme Court.