Tony Blair and Gordon Brown joined forces to defend the Government's proposals on university top-up fees yesterday as the first cracks appeared in the rebellion by Labour MPs.
The Chancellor appealed to Labour backbenchers to support the controversial plan after MPs loyal to Mr Blair accused leaders of the revolt of using the issue to try to oust him as Prime Minister in order to replace him with Mr Brown. In his strongest declaration of support for variable fees, Mr Brown told a meeting of East Midlands Labour MPs: "My message to Labour MPs is this: wholeheartedly support the Government proposals, which both promote fairness and give the universities the resources they need."
Last night Mr Blair hailed the scheme as "probably the most progressive university reforms ever presented to Parliament" and "a prime example of the modern path to social justice".
He told a conference organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research: "There is no pain-free option of extending opportunity and building a quality higher education system for the many, not for the few, without someone paying for it. By far the fairest way of paying for it is, I believe, the one we are putting forward."
Insisting there was "no Plan B," the Prime Minister predicted the Government would win the crucial Commons vote on 27 January. "With each day that passes I am more confident we can win this argument and more convinced that it is essential for our country's future that we do win it," he said.
At a heated weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) yesterday, there were strong attacks on the former ministers leading the revolt, including Nick Brown and George Mudie, who are close allies of the Chancellor. Government sources claimed that several of the 159 MPs who signed a Commons motion urging a rethink over top-up fees had switched sides and would support the plan, but admitted the result was still "too close to call". One source said: "People are waking up to the fact that this is less about higher education and more about the future of the Prime Minister."
At the PLP meeting, described by some who attended as the most electric since the 1980s, 18 MPs spoke in favour of top-up fees and five against. Janet Anderson, a former minister, accused the former ministers leading the rebellion of "rediscovering their socialist consciences the moment the Prime Minister dispensed with their services".
David Winnick, MP for Walsall North, said: "If anyone sees the need to organise a change of leader, perhaps they could come to an open meeting of the PLP rather than spend their time talking to the media."
But the rebels denied the revolt was crumbling, insisting that more than 100 MPs were standing firm, which is more than the 81 needed to inflict a humiliating defeat on Mr Blair. They claimed that yesterday's meeting had been hijacked by government loyalists.
One MP said: "There was an orchestrated production with some hysterical, Oscar-winning performances. It was a Nuremberg rally with lots of little Goebbels." He likened the meeting to Saddam Hussein addressing Baath party loyalists.
Mr Mudie rejected the criticism that he was plotting against Mr Blair or colluding with the Tories and Liberal Democrats. He said the meeting had not even discussed the main cause of the rebellion: the plan to allow universities to vary fees.
Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, warned the rebels that Labour would score an "own goal" at the next general election if it failed to settle the issue of university funding now. The only winners if the Government lost the vote would be the Tories, he said. He said: "This is crunch time."
He promised to publish proposals to allow students from poorer families to convert a £1,200 remission on fee repayments after graduation into concessions.
But opponents of fees will counter Mr Clarke's arguments by issuing their own briefing documents to MPs as the battle intensifies in the run-up to the vote.
They have called a campaign meeting next Wednesday to build momentum among MPs and are preparing a series of briefing documents designed to counter the campaign by Mr Clarke. Some rebels even held out the prospect of the Government dropping the Bill.
THE DIVIDED REBELS
Organisers of the Labour rebellion against top-up fees claim that up to 110 of their members are still holding firm. But Labour whips believe the figure is just under 100 and falling.
The rebels insist they will stand firm unless the Government drops the most controversial element of the Higher Education Bill - allowing variable fees to be charged by different universities and for different courses. The Government must further deplete their ranks to avoid defeat and ministers say 20 to 30 may be "persuadable", leaving the vote on a knife edge.
Members include: Former ministers Nick Brown, George Mudie, Clare Short, Frank Dobson, Barbara Roche and the anti-Blair campaign group of 29 MPs.
About 40 of the 159 Labour MPs who signed a Commons motion urging the Government to rethink top-up fees are likely to support the second reading on 27 January. Some have been won round by measures to help poorer students; others are recoiling from what they see as an attempt to oust Tony Blair. Diehards insist that most were never going to vote against the Government and only a handful have switched sides.
Members include: Tony Banks, above, Stephen Pound, Frank Doran, Martin Jones, Hilton Dawson and Keith Vaz.
About 20 of the original 159 rebels are having second thoughts, but have not yet decided to support the Government. Some may abstain, which would still harm Mr Blair's prospects in the vote and he will be desperate to woo them into the "Yes" camp over the next two weeks. This group could decide the outcome of the crunch vote. Some are holding out for further concessions, while others may decide not to rebel in the second reading vote and seek amendments during the Bill's later stages.
Members include: Martin Salter, Diana Organ.