Blair has 'learnt lessons' after backbench rebellion

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Tony Blair yesterday rejected demands by Labour MPs for him to promise he would "never again" ask his party to support a controversial reform such as university top-up fees.

But the Prime Minister issued a conciliatory message to critics of his "top-down" style, admitting he had to learn lessons from the way he conducted the debate over tuition fees and "rebuild bridges" with his party. He survived a backbench rebellion by the skin of his teeth on Tuesday, when his 161 majority was slashed to five.

The revolt prompted calls by Labour MPs for an end to Mr Blair's reform programme - at least until after the general election expected next year. But in a speech in Hertfordshire, Mr Blair insisted that his perilously close shave would not persuade him to slow down.

"I cannot promise it will be 'never again' in the sense of asking MPs or the Labour Party to make a tough and important choice," he said. "To do so would not just be an absence of leadership, more importantly it would be a dereliction of responsibility towards those who will benefit from the opportunity and better public services brought about by reform."

He conceded the Government had "made a mistake" by allowing the top-up fees plan to be portrayed as contrary to Labour's values, saying the opposite was true.

In a contrite section of the speech, the Prime Minister said: "Policy first and explanation later is not the way to do things, and this was the problem with the way the debate on university finance happened."

Some MPs felt the measures were sprung on them with too little explanation, leading to the "bizarre situation" of some MPs voting against the Government even though they supported 90 per cent of its proposals because they were far too exposed in their public opposition to climb back.

He conceded that "change driven from the centre" had its limits. "It is vital that service reform is to be driven from the bottom, as well as enabled from the centre," he said. He also stressed the Government's support for "localism" and denied there was any conflict between nationally set standards and freedom and innovation by managers on the front line.

Mr Blair insisted that the aim of his reforms was to deliver "modern social justice", by ensuring that "equity, universality and public accountability" thrive in a world of change.

He rejected criticism that reforms such as foundation hospitals and variable tuition fees were part of a hidden agenda for "marketising" public services. "The truth is that diversity in quality and type of public services is not a reform; it is a reality. Students don't think all universities are the same. Parents don't think all schools are. Patients know darn well some hospitals and doctors are better than others," he said.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, said the Government would learn from the "haphazard and frantic" build-up to the vote on top-up fees. He told MPs ministers were reflecting very carefully on the fall-out from the top-up fees vote. He said: "The policy was absolutely right but I think the process which led to the second reading debate could have been improved. Lessons have been learnt and are being learnt."

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, called the vote "the culmination of a highly unsatisfactory process". He asked Mr Hain to consider "how we can involve backbenchers more fully in the production of policy, particularly in complicated areas like higher education and funding".

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