Fee rebels cut Blair's majority to 28

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Tony Blair survived another big rebellion by Labour MPs last night when opponents failed to wreck the Government's controversial plans for university top-up fees.

A rebel amendment, which would have removed variable fees of to £3,000 a year from the Higher Education Bill, was defeated by 316 votes to 288 after a six-hour heated debate. Fifty-five Labour MPs voted against the Government, whose majority of 161 was cut to 28 - the third lowest since Labour came to power in 1997.

The Bill was later given a third reading by 309 votes to 248. Last night's votes mean that top-up fees are likely to be introduced in 2006. Ministers, who had to work hard to head off what would have been a humiliating defeat, were relieved to see the Bill win approval by a more comfortable victory than in January, when it scraped through by just five votes.

Blair loyalists said Labour MPs had "pulled back from the brink" of an all-out confrontation with the Government, pointing out that 72 backbenchers voted against the Bill in January.

The Government still faces a battle to force the measure through the House of Lords. If peers reject variable fees, the Government will ask MPs to overturn the decision - another close vote could be on the cards. Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We are taking the battle to the Lords. We have already made contact with many members of the House of Lords and there are a lot of lords who understand that students shouldn't graduate with tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt. This fight isn't over until the Queen signs the Bill."

Yesterday's rebellion was led by Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, who condemned variable top-up fees as "a really bad idea". He welcomed the Government's measures to attract poor students to university, but warned: "Introducing variable fees I believe is a heavy price to be paid for these measures and counteracts any improvements which have been made."

Dr Gibson denied ministers' claims that he was colluding with the Opposition.

"I regret this issue has been turned into a matter of loyalties. It is a matter of principle and one that strikes at the very core of what we stand for on this side," he said.

The debate turned personal as Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, accused Dr Gibson of being a "bad loser". Anger erupted in the chamber as Mr Sheerman said: "The general criticism of his amendment is that it is a wrecking amendment. He is a bad loser and he lost on second reading." Dr Gibson replied: "Those are really, really kind words. I will treat that with the disdain that many members think it merits."

MPs bitterly attacked Government claims that Dr Gibson, whose constituency neighbours that of Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, had joined forces with the Tories. Clare Short, the former international development secretary, said: "In Parliament we are supposed to respond to proposals which come from the Government even if we find ourselves voting with the Opposition on peace in Northern Ireland; it happened on the war in Iraq. To suggest to those of us who want to adhere to our manifesto commitment and to what will be real equity in access to higher education, that that is playing games with the Opposition, that is a dishonourable attack."

Tim Collins, the Tories' education spokesman, called on ministers to back down over top-up fees or risk fuelling cynicism in politics. He said: "They are bad proposals which have rightly divided this house. They are in clear breach of open and honest pledges made to this House and to the electorate."

But Alan Johnson, the Higher Education minister, appealed to Labour MPs to back away from Dr Gibson's amendment. He insisted the move would wreck proposals for upfront grants of £3,000 a year to the poorest students and prevent extra money being poured into universities. He condemned flat-rate fees as "a poll tax on students, totally unrelated to the quality of higher education or the preferences of students."