Blair makes last-minute plea to avoid universities defeat

Boost for PM as former leading rebel promises to support Government
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair made a last-minute appeal to Labour MPs last night not to inflict a humiliating defeat on him over his plans to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 in top-up fees in tonight's knife-edge Commons vote.

Talks between the rebel leaders and the Prime Minister broke up in acrimony as Mr Blair refused to make further concessions. A Downing Street spokesman said there would be no more meetings with them, adding: "It's now make-your-mind-up time."

But Mr Blair received a boost today after the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had said that the Government was heading for defeat unless more rebels changed their minds. A leading rebel, the former chief whip Nick Brown, said he would now support the Government.

He said: "The concessions that the Government have made are good enough for me. I'll be supporting the Government tonight."

Mr Prescott had urged Labour MPs to back the Government in what he presented as a straight battle with Conservatives determined to undermine it. He warned that the package of support for poorer students drawn up by Education Secretary Charles Clarke would be lost if the Bill did not go through.

Organisers of the rebellion claimed that a further 20 MPs could join the 77 rebels pictured on today's front page, creating a total opposition of more than 100 to the Higher Education Bill, a force strong enough to kill off the measure.

Close allies admitted that Mr Blair's authority was on the line as never before. "It's looking pretty bleak," one aide conceded. "We are into unchartered and choppy waters."

The Prime Minister pleaded with rebels at meetings in his Commons room not to "hand victory to Michael Howard", warning that defeat would result in fewer people from working-class families going to university. He called in "soft" rebels for a series of meetings, some on a one-to-one basis and others in small groups. Ministers admitted privately that defeat would be a crushing blow for Mr Blair because he has turned tonight's vote into an issue of confidence in his leadership. One said: "It would be very difficult to pursue our agenda of reforming public services. This is not a peripheral issue - it is a central one." In his meetings, the Prime Minister appealed to the rebels to judge the Government's proposals "on their merits" - a recognition that many Labour MPs will vote against him personally. "We could win the argument and lose the vote," one minister said.

Cabinet ministers including Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Jack Straw joined the battle to stave off defeat by speaking to the rebel MPs with whom they are personal friends. But two Brown allies organising the rebellion, Nick Brown and George Mudie, had refused to back down. They both met Mr Blair yesterday and one source said: "The Prime Minister was only interested in looking them in the eye and saying, 'Will you support me?' The answer was 'no.'"

The Chancellor told an enterprise conference he chaired in London: "I want us to be the best-educated, best-trained workforce, and tomorrow's much-needed reform of university finance - which I urge all MPs and all Labour MPs to support - is another vital step towards that goal."

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, issued a Commons statement spelling out his plans to review the top-up fees scheme three years after it takes effect in 2006. He said an independent commission would look at the impact of the system on universities, students and prospective students.

Mr Clarke said the commission would consider what changes were needed "to ensure that students from the poorest family backgrounds on the most expensive courses receive support at a level equivalent to the maximum level of fees."

Labour whips were accused of "serious contempt of Parliament" after they refused to pay the £600 fare for 20 Labour backbenchers attending a week-long Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg to return to Westminster unless they will support the Government. Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, said it was important the rules "operate fairly for all members" after Tories accused the Government of an "abuse of power".

Mr Prescott said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I say to my colleagues who either want to abstain or vote against - it's make your mind up time, do you support a Labour Government or not?

"We've had all these discussions about all these proposals and at the end of the day that's what it boils down to - the Tories saying 'we haven't got a policy, but we are going to defeat Labour. Will you come over and help us do it?' That's precisely what they are doing."

The leader of Britain's leading universities warned yesterday that the UK will offer a "second-class'' higher education to thousands of students if MPs throw out the legislation.

Professor Michael Sterling, Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group, which represents the top 19 higher education research institutions, said: "You will put the UK higher education system on a second-class footing if the Bill goes down."

In an interview with The Independent, he warned: "That will have massive implications for the economy of the country. If we have a second-class university system, we cannot give enough people the skills they will need for us to compete in the global economy."

IF THE BILL IS DEFEATED

By Ben Russell

A defeat for Tony Blair today would represent a devastating and possibly terminal blow to the Prime Minister's personal authority on the eve of one of the most difficult occasions of his premiership.

If the rebels carry the day and throw out the Higher Education Bill, it will be only the fourth time in more than a century that a Prime Minister has lost a Bill at the first stage of its long passage through the House of Commons.

The last time MPs voted down the second reading of a Bill, traditionally the stage when the Commons gives its agreement on broad principles, was on 14 April 1986, when Mrs Thatcher's Shops Bill was sunk.

Ministers have warned that such a vote would throw the party over the abyss, especially on the eve of the publication of the Hutton report.

Aides refuse to contemplate defeat, but a vote against Mr Blair could provoke a vote of confidence in the Government on Thursday.

Mr Blair would be certain to win such a vote, with even hardcore rebels sure to rally to the Government's side, but the failure to press through such a high-profile Bill so closely associated with the Prime Minister would leave his personal credibility with the party and the country severely damaged.

Government sources insist that a majority of one vote is enough to secure victory, but, in reality, a narrow win for Mr Blair could also leave him scarred because of his close personal identification with such a divisive policy. But even a more emphatic victory could prove problematic in the longer run if rebels turn top-up fees into a running sore during its committee and report stages in the House of Commons.

Some MPs likely to support the Government today could rebel during the later stages of the Bill's passage.

Rebels have already indicated that they would try to remove the controversial variable fees from the Bill in its later stages if they fail to defeat the legislation at the second reading.

Opposition MPs have also pledged to try to amend the Bill in the Commons, while the House of Lords is also likely to prove problematic.

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