Bullish Blair tells Paxman: I will survive

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair declared "I will survive" last night as he faced next week's threats of the Hutton inquiry and a Labour rebellion over university top-up fees. But the Prime Minister admitted that trust in the Government was "an issue" and acknowledged that coming days would be "difficult".

He was grilled on plans for top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year on a BBC Newsnight special before addressing a meeting of Labour backbenchers, aimed at quelling a rebellion which threatens to defeat the plans.

Mr Blair, when asked by Jeremy Paxman, the presenter, whether he would ride out the storm created by next Tuesday's vote on top-up fees and the following day's publication of the long-awaited Hutton inquiry, insisted: "I believe I will survive it, yes.

"It's going to be difficult. I can't remember the last week that was the most difficult week. I think it was the week before last; they come around pretty regularly as you know. But that is part of the job and I have got to do what I think is right. I know a lot of people disagree with me on this."

Questioned by an audience of students, parents, teachers and children, he said: "I'm going to do my best, aren't I, to win the vote and I can't tell you what the Hutton report is going to say, [so] there's no point speculating about it."

He faced an angry confrontation with Julia Prague, 19, a second year student at Guy's, King's and St Thomas's Medical School, who said she was the first member of her immediate family to go to university, told Mr Blair his proposals would prevent the children of middle-class families going into higher education.

She told The Independent: "He asks why the Government should fund my education, and he was saying why should a dustman fund my education; it's because if he has a heart attack he will be very pleased I went to university."

Mr Blair was also challenged about why he had broken a manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees and asked whether he was embarrassed to bring in top-up fees after enjoying a grant and free tuition. Mr Blair replied that universities needed extra funding. He said: "It either comes exclusively from the taxpayer, from families or by graduates paying something after they graduate. I'm not embarrassed by that because... times change."

Earlier, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, offered a fresh concession to rebel MPs as he published detailed proposals to pay grants of £2,700 to the poorest third of students.