How the rebels' leader turned traitor, and lifted the gloom around Downing Street

Copies of The Independent's front page yesterday - carrying the mugshots of top-up fee rebels preparing to deal a devastating blow to Tony Blair's premiership - were in heavy demand in Downing Street.

Officials crowded round the series of pictures, from Diane Abbott to Betty Williams, ticking off those determined to rebel come what may and leaving a question mark against those they believed might still be susceptible to last minute persuasion. Their conclusion early yesterday - that the Government still faced defeat by as many as 20 votes - mirrored the whips' gloomy assessment of their chances of success.

But a few hundred yards away in the House of Commons, Nick Brown, regarded as the rebels' ringleader, was about to receive the telephone call that was to lead to one of the most spectacular political volte-faces in recent political history. On the line was his friend and ally, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who succeeded where the repeated entreaties of Tony Blair had failed and persuaded his namesake to switch sides.

Nick Brown's declaration stunned both rebels, with whom he had been swapping information about waverers' voting intentions less than 24 hours earlier, and government loyalists, who suspected he had become a bit-player in a drama centred on the Chancellor's long-term ambitions.

Inevitably, rumours immediately circulated that Gordon Brown had leaned on his allies to save Mr Blair's skin - an impression the Chancellor's friends did nothing to dispel.

But Blairites claimed he had forced Nick Brown to back down because defeat for the Government would have damaged the entire Labour Party. "Gordon has started to think about what sort of party he would inherit if he succeeds Tony," said one Blair aide. "Does he really want to take over a divided party that's returned to its bad old ways?"

In addition, Mr Blair and his advisers had cooked up an astonishing plan to salvage the Higher Education Bill if it had been defeated last night, The Independent has learnt.

Ministers had repeatedly told Labour rebels that there was "no plan B" if the measure was killed off. In fact, the Prime Minister did have a "plan B". In what some allies described as "the nuclear option", a defeated Mr Blair would have tabled a motion of confidence in the Government but, crucially, would have added a sentence saying that MPs endorsed its proposals to reform higher education.

The plan would have outraged Labour opponents of top-up fees. But Mr Blair had calculated he would have rescued his proposals because even his most hardline critics would support the Government in a confidence vote.

The Chancellor was aware of Mr Blair's fall-back plan when he spoke to Nick Brown. According to Downing Street insiders, the Chancellor judged the Prime Minister would get his Bill through one way or the other and so put pressure on Nick Brown to back off.

Shortly after 11am, Nick Brown made an uncomfortable appearance before the television cameras outside the St Stephen's entrance to the Commons. Surrounded by student protesters, he argued that he had changed his mind because of a review of the impact of top-up fees and the promise of extra money for students who lost out under the new policy. He added: "I am speaking only for myself - but I do know that many parliamentary colleagues feel the same way as me." As he headed back inside, he was heckled by students and MPs still opposed to fees.

Many observers believed that by, as one television commentator put it, throwing his "considerable weight behind the Government", the portly former chief whip had saved the day for the Prime Minister who had sacked him.

But there was immediate confusion over the details of the concessions that prompted his U-turn. Downing Street strongly disputed his version of events, insisting no further ground had been given. One reason for this is that Mr Blair regrets making so many changes to his plans for foundation hospitals to squeeze them through Parliament, which led to criticism that his reform plans had been diluted.

According to No 10 sources, the new package which converted Nick Brown was exactly the one offered to him at a meeting with Mr Blair on Monday afternoon, also attended by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and George Mudie, the revolt's other main organiser.

One source said: "They went away and discussed it but came back on Monday night and said 'no deal'. So the Prime Minister told them there was nothing more on offer - they should go ahead and vote with the Tories." Mr Blair discussed the deadlock with Gordon Brown, who then put in his decisive call to his acoloyte.

Yesterday's surprise turn-around was illustrated by an interview given by Mr Prescott, who told Radio 4 at 7.55am: "On the way the figures are at the moment, the Government will get defeated."

Three hours later, Mr Prescott was all smiles as he gave another round of interviews in Portcullis House, Westminster - ironically feet from the spot where Nick Brown and other rebels had talked tactics less than 24 hours earlier. "I am hopeful now that people will say 'Labour supports Labour'," he said.

Lisa Tremble, special adviser to the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, could not believe it when a journalist rang her to say that Nick Brown had changed his mind. "No ... he hasn't!" she replied.

But although the news was indeed true, there was no immediate sign of the stampede of dissident MPs switching sides which the Government needed for victory. Two hours after Nick Brown's about-turn just three rebels, Clive Betts, Bob Blizzard and Angela Eagle, had changed their minds.

Others revealed a mixture of anger and irritation at Nick Brown's move, insisting they were resolute in their determination to defy the Government. Ian Gibson, the former academic who is now MP for Norwich North, said: "I think Nick was doing things quietly on his own. He was never part and parcel of our group."

Glenda Jackson, the former transport minister, said: "I don't believe the Government has addressed the fundamental issues. I'm very concerned about the variability of fees."

Alan Simpson, a vociferous government critic, voiced the private suspicions of many as he declared: "In some ways Nick is more exposed than the rest of us because he is seen as being synonymous with Gordon Brown. The difficulty is that Gordon's position becomes questionable if Nick's vote is against the Government. So in some ways, Nick will be getting Gordon off the hook."

As Mr Clarke rose to speak in the Commons some seven hours before the vote, Government whips were still insisting they were heading for defeat by a margin in the "low teens".

Inside the chamber, the expected air of high drama was absent. Mr Blair, who had received a copy of the Hutton inquiry report minutes before but had no chance to even glance at it, joked with Gordon Brown. He waved to the Chancellor to move along the green benches to make way for the frame of John Prescott.

Behind them, on the bench reserved for ministerial aides, sat Nick Brown, intensely studying his speaking notes. Suddenly he was being treated like backbench royalty, with the government whip Jim Murphy scuttling out at one stage to pour him a glass of water.

In a confident speech, Mr Clarke warned potential rebels that a vote against the Higher Education Bill would deny working-class students a generous package of financial support and held out the olive branch of a review of the policy within 12 months.

But asthe debate got under way whips and ministers were still struggling to persuade MPs to come into line. Caroline Flint, the Home Office minister, was in conversation with Valerie Davey, a former colleague on the Commons Education Select Committee.

Elsewhere, Mr Blair and six other cabinet ministers held meetings with opponents of the plans in their Commons room right up to the wire.

With less than two hours to go to the vote, many of the dissidents were standing firm in the face of massive pressure.

Labour whips - supported in this respect by the rebels - argued they were still at least seven votes short of victory. Fifteen minutes before the division, the whips insisted they were still three adrift.

Their last-minute frenzy just made the difference, enabling the Government to squeak home by an agonisingly small majority. As it was announced, Mr Prescott clenched his fist in triumph and Mr Blair slapped his thigh. But the Prime Minister will be well aware he could have used up his last political life.

One waverer, who switched at the last moment after a meeting with Mr Blair, said: "There needs to be a period of humility from him. We can't go through this again."

THE MAIN PLAYERS

NICK BROWN

Mr Brown, 53, had been a figurehead for the rebels and his decision to perform a volte-face was a serious blow to the opposition camp.

His change of mind followed a phone call from Gordon Brown - the two have remained close since the former agriculture minister left the Government.

Nick Brown was a respected figure who had never rebelled against the leadership in his 19 years on the party's front bench. He sided with the rebels because of concern about the effect of top-up fees on poorer students and the deterrent effect that large debts would have.

His objections to Tony Blair's scheme centred on variable fees and he objected to Mr Blair's decision to break a manifesto commitment not to introduce fees.

Mr Brown's decision to back the Government at the 11th hour, which baffled and angered many rebels and could tarnish his reputation, was the subject of conspiracy theories last night.

He said he had fresh concessions from the Chancellor which met many of his concerns.

But Downing Street denied extra cash would be available and raised doubts over the promise of a review of the fees policy.

GORDON BROWN

The Chancellor of the Exchequer repeatedly asked backbenchers to vote for the Government's proposals, and the decision of Nick Brown to do a U-turn is widely ascribed to his influence.

His ability to bring allies on board - including Mr Brown and Barbara Roche - will enhance his power and demonstrate to Downing Street that, without his backing, it may not be able to command the full support of the back benches for its reform programme.

There has been talk at Westminster that Mr Brown is not whole-heartedly in favour of Mr Blair's proposals for student finance. But yesterday the word was that he saved the Prime Minister's skin.

Mr Brown, 52, was reported to prefer a graduate tax as a way of raising extra cash for universities. He is also said to have been uneasy about breaking Labour's manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees.

The rebellion was seen by many at Westminster as helpful to Gordon Brown, who continues to harbour leadership ambitions.

At the weekend the Chancellor offered his backing for Mr Blair as Prime Minister but said that whether he remained Prime Minister was a matter for Mr Blair.

JOHN PRESCOTT

The Deputy Prime Minister played a pivotal role in bringing rebels on board while the result was in the balance. The Deputy Prime Minister, who yesterday warned that the Government could lose, was present at a crucial meeting with Tony Blair on Monday when he tried to convince leading rebels to toe the government line.

Mr Prescott, who has risen to Mr Blair's defence before on controversial issues, takes pride in his loyalty to him as party leader even if he does not agree with the fine print of his proposals. The former merchant seaman retains credibility with the Labour grassroots and backbenchers as a party stalwart. He is fiercely partisan and has a visceral enmity towards the Tories; the thought of handing a victory to Michael Howard will have been a strong motivation.

Mr Prescott has proved a staunch, reliable lieutenant to Mr Blair, although he has little in common with some of the Prime Minister's associates, including Peter Mandelson.

GEORGE MUDIE

The MP for Leeds East is a straight-talking former assistant chief whip and Higher Education minister who used his formidable organisational skills to orchestrate the rebellion.

Mr Mudie, 58, assistant to Nick Brown in the whips' office, has used the arm-twisting techniques he honed in the service of the Labour Government to mount a similarly regimented operation on the back benches.

Unlike Mr Brown, he voted against. Yet he is not a serial rebel and helped Tony Blair rally backbench support ahead of the Iraq vote.

Mr Mudie said opponents may have lost the vote but they had won the argument. The Bill had been damaged and would have a tough passage through Parliament.

"I hope it has caused the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to realise they cannot treat the Parliamentary Labour Party like this," he said.

Mr Mudie's role at the forefront of the rebellion alarmed the Government, which launched a smear campaign against him.

IAN GIBSON

The MP for Norwich North is an urbane former science lecturer, whose opposition to fees is based on concern about their effect on university teaching and student recruitment. The leading rebel was concerned that the Government's proposals would not raise enough extra cash for universities, while the money they would raise would be channelled into research and not teaching.

Mr Gibson, 65, a former dean of biology at the University of East Anglia, now chairs the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. He is a friend of Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and represents a neighbouring constituency.

The former union official is not a serial rebel and has won praise from other backbenchers for his academic and non-aggressive opposition to the Bill.

Last night, after the vote, Mr Gibson vowed to carry on the fight against top-up fees, declaring: "I will never sleep until I get rid of variable fees."

CHARLES CLARKE

The Education Secretary has waged a relentless campaign to sell top-up fees to rebel MPs, with a media blitz and a series of one-to-one meetings.

But, since presenting the Bill, Mr Clarke, 53, has been forced to make concessions to win them over but rejects claims he "watered down" the plans.

The Cambridge graduate tried to sell the Bill on the merits of the Government's package.

He has been known to shout but he has not alienated rebels who say they are "impressed" by his attempts to win them over. Leading rebels believe Mr Clarke is not a wholehearted believer in top-up fees and has pushed the policy out of duty.

He is a parliamentary bruiser and former president of the National Union of Students who was chief of staff to Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader. Mr Clarke was previously School Standards minister and is fiercely ambitious. After the vote, he said his position and that of Tony Blair was strengthened by the victory.

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