Howard stands firm in opposing top-up fees

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard is expected to maintain the Tories' opposition to the Government's plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year.

After a day of confusing signals from the new Tory leadership and mounting speculation of a U-turn, the Opposition made clear last night it would stick to the policy agreed under Iain Duncan Smith.

The Tories' stance is important because, if they change their policy, it could ensure the Government's proposal wins approval in the Commons. If the Tories maintain their current line, ministers are in danger of suffering a defeat because the Tories would join forces with Labour rebels and Liberal Democrats to vote against the Higher Education Bill, which is to be included in the Queen's Speech on 26 November. More than 100 Labour MPs have signalled their opposition to top up-fees.

Mr Howard has come under pressure to review the populist policy agreed earlier this year, under which the Tories prom-ised to scrap tuition fees, abolish "Mickey Mouse" courses and abandon Labour's target to raise to 50 per cent the number of people aged 18-30 in higher education.

Speculation of a U-turn was fuelled yesterday when Tory sources said a campaign against Labour's plans, to be launched by the leadership next week, was postponed.

Tim Yeo, the new shadow Secretary of State for Health and Education , pointedly refused to defend the party's proposals, saying he would not comment on policy for a month. But, last night, he said: "We do not plan to change this policy. I have no plans to change it. It has been announced. It has been agreed by the Shadow Cabinet. I do not want to change it."

Tory critics of the party's policy have warned that an across-the-board subsidy would not help students from poor families, and said it conflicted with the party's commitment to decentralisation. But other MPs opposed a U-turn, arguing that it would let the Government off the hook and scupper the prospect of defeating Tony Blair on one of his main new policies.

A rethink appeared on the cards when Damian Green was unexpectedly moved from his post as shadow Secretary of State for Education in Mr Howard's reshuffle on Monday. He lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet and was demoted to shadow Secretary of State for Transport. He is understood to have been told the leadership wanted to "look again" at the scheme, with which he was closely associated.

Mr Howard's pledge to build a slimline frontbench team was called into question yesterday when he completed his reshuffle. When the junior appointments are included, the total number of frontbench posts in the Commons and Lords has risen from 141 under Mr Duncan Smith to 146.

David Davis, the new shadow Home Secretary, insisted the team would be more effective and quick on its feet because the Shadow Cabinet had been reduced from 26 to 12.

New appointments include a promotion for Boris Johnson, MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator magazine, who wins a campaigning role as a vice-chairman. The full list confirmed there is no place for Eric Forth, who was shadow Leader of the Commons under Mr Duncan Smith, Quentin Davies, the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Bill Cash, shadow Attorney General. Also leaving the front bench are Andrew Robathan, John Taylor and Cheryl Gillan.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, was criticised by Labour MPs yesterday for refusing to give up his "morning job" at NM Rothschild.