A rebel Labour MP who has said she plans to vote against Tony Blair over tuition fees was enjoying a quiet lunch in the Commons last week when she was joined by a colleague who supports the Government. Inevitably, the talk turned to university funding.
The Blairite MP had a niece who would be going to university soon, and who stood to benefit greatly from the measures put together by the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke. The Government's package includes generous help for students from low-income families.
The Labour rebel listened with interest, finished her meal, then went for a coffee in the tea room. There she was approached by another government supporter. Astonishingly, this MP also had a niece. This niece was also bound for university and would also benefit from Mr Clarke's package, just like the previous MP's niece.
Quite a coincidence. But then last week was fightback week, a time when Labour whips and some backbench MPs came out energetically in support of the Education secretary. Mr Clarke had been looking a bit lonely as he battled to salvage legislation that had not been his idea in the first place, against the most highly organised opposition Tony Blair has ever faced.
The main show of support came at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Wednesday, when Mr Clarke was guest speaker. Unusually, although the meeting lasted an hour and a half, the minister spoke for only a few minutes. For most of the time he listened. For once, most of what he heard will have cheered him up. The first speaker was the chairman of the Commons Education Committee, Barry Sheerman, who vociferously called for "loyalty, loyalty, loyalty", in what one hostile observer subsequently described as a "hysterical, shuddering shriek". Of two dozen speakers who followed, only four opposed government policy. The first to do so, Harold Best, was barracked.
Lorna Fitzsimons, a former president of the National Union of Students, described the rebels as "élitist snobs". Another government supporter, Andrew Miller, mischievously described how he had been driven through the lobby five years ago to vote for the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees for students by George Mudie, who was Deputy Chief Whip at that time. Mr Mudie, who was in the room listening, is now organising the rebels.
After this show of support, MPs carried on huddled conversations in the corridors and tea rooms - some hawking suspiciously similar stories about their own teenage nieces - while government spin-doctors fanned out to give journalists lists of names of MPs who had previously had doubts about the policy but were now pledging to vote in favour. By the end of the day, the Government had successfully created an atmosphere in which it appeared to be winning the argument, and the rebels appeared to be in retreat.
Yet the rebel leaders remain adamant that their supporters are not falling away in large numbers. A week ago, Mr Mudie had a list of more than 100 Labour MPs prepared to vote against the Government. He claims that only three people from that list have since changed their minds. Meanwhile, two MPs who were not on the list - Andy Reed from Loughborough and Mohammad Sarwar from Glasgow - have stepped forward to declare their opposition to the policy.
The Independent on Sunday's own extensive survey suggests a similar pattern: a few MPs softening their opposition, others hardening theirs, with little net movement in either direction.
Mr Clarke's allies say that even this precarious position is an achievement for a relatively new education secretary handed the job of defending an unpopular policy made in No 10 Downing Street. The MPs who rallied to his defence last week, such as Helen Jackson, a former parliamentary aide to Mo Mowlam, are not the "usual suspects" who automatically back every government policy.
But Mr Clarke's problem is that many of the rebels are not drawn from the usual suspects, either. Perhaps the most important is the former Chief Whip, Nick Brown, an MP for more than 20 years, who has never before voted against party policy but who intends to this time.
Barbara Roche, another formerly ultra-loyal Blairite who is sticking with the rebels, said: "I will find this very, very difficult to do, as someone who has always believed in modernising public services."
The intense activity will continue all this week, in the run-up to 48 frantic hours at the end of the month that will be a turning point in Mr Blair's premiership. Tomorrow Mr Clarke will publish a document in which he is expected to promise to give students from low-income families greater freedom to make use of the grants and loans package on offer. Instead of receiving a £1,500 cash grant, plus £1,200 in the form of reduced fees, students are likely to get a grant of £2,700. This is expected to be enough to make some hardened doubters declare they will back the Government after all.
On the same day, Mr Blair will hold a meeting open to all Labour MPs, followed by a televised debate with a studio audience for the Newsnight programme on BBC2. It was Downing Street who insisted on putting the Prime Minister in front of members of the public, rather than put him through a one-to-one interview with a professional like Jeremy Paxman. Mr Blair's advisers believe he is at his best when he is talking directly to ordinary electors.
Over the following couple of days Mr Clarke will go through a punishing final round of private meetings with Labour MPs, in a last effort to persuade them to support his much-amended package. After that, it will be up to the whips to count heads and twist arms.
The Government's probable margin of victory or defeat is so tight that when the day of the big vote dawns, on 27 January, the whips may not know for certain who is going to win. Even if they know how each Labour MP proposes to vote, there are questions about what some of those outside the party will do. One former Conservative minister for education, Robert Jackson, signalled last week that he would break ranks with his party on the issue and support the Government. Other Tories may abstain. One former cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, has indicated that - perversely - he will speak in favour of the principle of student fees then vote against the Government.
But in that final mêlée before the vote at 7pm, the Government will have one tactical advantage over the rebels: the knowledge of what Lord Hutton will say in his report to be published the next day. An embargoed copy will be handed to the occupants of Downing Street at lunchtime on Tuesday. A few dark hints that the report is going to make life very difficult for the Prime Minister may induce waverers to close ranks behind him. The timing of Lord Hutton's report is also going to put Michael Howard under intense pressure. If the Government is defeated on the Tuesday he will have to decide on his next move without any knowledge of the report's contents. Convention dictates that the Conservatives will respond to victory in the vote by laying down a motion of no confidence in the Government. This will then be debated in the Commons on Wednesday.
By then Mr Howard will have seen what Lord Hutton is saying. He and Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will be allowed to study the report in a locked room at the Commons from six o'clock on the Wednesday morning.
The first thing Mr Howard will look for is what the report says about Mr Blair personally. If Lord Hutton's conclusion is that the Prime Minister has not told the full truth, then the Leader of the Opposition will have a feast of opportunities. He will demand that the Prime Minister resign because his honesty has been impugned, and that the Government resign because it cannot formulate a policy on university funding. All in all, Mr Howard will be having the time of his life.
However, events are unlikely to be that simple or dramatic in reality. It is not generally expected that Lord Hutton will criticise the Prime Minister personally. Mr Blair dropped a strong hint during his Commons exchanges with Mr Howard last week, when he told the Conservative leader: "Since you have effectively accused me of telling lies, I hope that if the report does not find those charges proven, you will have the decency to apologise."
Also, most observers around Westminster think that the Government will somehow pull through the vote on 27 January, even if the figures are very tight. Elsewhere in this newspaper the former cabinet minister Frank Dobson argues that even if Mr Blair is defeated on tuition fees, that would be no reason for the PM to resign.
Mr Blair himself seems to thrive on crisis, and is refusing even to consider the possibility of defeat. So he is not dead yet - but he is certainly fighting for his political life this month, as never before.
Monday 19 January
Charles Clarke publishes proposals aimed at making life easier for poorer students (and appeasing rebels). Tony Blair records interview for Newsnight, taking questions from studio audience.
Tuesday 20 January
Clarke faces critics and seeks to persuade waverers at an open meeting on tuition fees for all Labour MPs.
Wednesday 21 January
Battle shifts to academia when Blair visits a redbrick university. Clarke meets vice-chancellors at Commons with Labour MPs invited.
Thursday 22 January
Rebel MPs called in for series of private discussions with Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education.
Tuesday 27 January
Copies of Hutton report arrive in Downing Street at noon under strict embargo. MPs vote on Higher Education (Student Support) Bill at 7pm. If it is rejected, Conservatives will lay down a vote of no confidence.
Wednesday 28 January
Opposition leaders see the Hutton report in locked room at 6am. Lord Hutton publishes with a televised statement at noon. Blair faces Prime Minister's Questions half an hour later, then responds to Hutton formally with statement.Reuse content