Blair vows to 'be out there fighting' over top-up fees in a public offensive to win over rebel MPs

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair yesterday launched an offensive to win over rebels on top-up fees as he gave notice that he intends to "be out there fighting" on the issue and did not expect to lose.

In a live interview on the BBC, the first in a series of public appearances planned for the coming weeks, the Prime Minister said the government has not "contemplated defeat" on top-up fees. He challenged the 100 MPs who plan to rebel by saying that failure to back the proposal would "be a complete betrayal of the proper interests of the country".

Mr Blair said in an interview on BBC's Breakfast with Frost: "Let me be quite clear, it's extremely important to the whole authority of the Government that we do win it, but more important, it's important for the country."

Yesterday government sources indicated that pressure would increase on rebels this week over top-up fees. Labour party members will be asked to pressure their MPs to support Mr Blair.

Mr Blair is planning to meet his critics head on this month over university-tuition fees in the turbulent run-up to the publication of the Hutton report, starting with a live press conference this week. The Prime Minister, who suffered heart problems last year, acknowledged that he does "show the fatigue when it's there". But he said this was not surprising because in his job "a thousand people are kicking your backside morning, noon and night."

Mr Blair said that the Hutton report "is going to be concerned with issues in which I personally have obviously been deeply involved.I can assure you I have no intention of hiding away from this at all; on the contrary, I am enthusiastic about at long last being able to debate these issues on the basis of an objective, independent judgement".

Lord Hutton has complained that the official notes of conversations between Government figures he received were scant and not relevant to his inquiry. The judge complained that "only a small number of notes made by Private Secretaries were sent, and these notes were very sparse and of no relevance."

Yesterday Mr Blair refused to rule out leading for the Labour party on the debate on the Hutton report when it is published after speculation that he would not attend.

But Michael Howard, the Tory leader, accused him of preparing to "run away" from the findings of Lord Hutton's inquiry. He said it was "absolutely extraordinary" that the PM had failed to give the commitment to lead in the debate on the issue, or to guarantee a vote at the end of the debate. He also challenged Mr Blair to explain what he meant when he asked MPs to look at the "totality" of what he had said about Dr David Kelly and accused him of contradicting himself.

The Prime Minister's attempt to drum up support for the government ahead of Hutton and the tuition-fees debate comes as a leading Labour MP warned that Mr Blair is in danger of betraying Labour principles over top-up fees. Nick Brown MP, a former Government Chief Whip and close ally of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, criticised the Prime Minister for abandoning a promise in the Labour manifesto not to bring in fees and not consulting Labour activists before publishing his plans.

Mr Brown warned that tuition fees would lead to poorer students being excluded from the best universities because they could not afford them. He said this was "a pretty wicked thing for any government to do."

Mr Brown, who has never before voted against the Government, warned in an interview with The Independent that pressure to raise fees above £3,000 would be "remorseless" if the legislation came into effect. "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 said.

He added that the problem for Mr Blair not having a reverse gear, as the Prime Minister stated last year, was that there could be a "danger that you just go too far." He was also concerned that the Government was trying to "second guess the Conservatives." Mr Brown said he wanted Mr Blair to return to the idealism and principles led him to the win the 1997 election in a landslide.