Tony Blair faces the prospect of a calamitous defeat in the Commons over his plans to introduce top-up fees for universities, the policy he hailed as his flagship for the second term.
A survey carried out this weekend by The Independent on Sunday of Labour MPs who had previously expressed doubts about top-up fees suggests that the concessions announced by the Government have failed to win over potential rebels. Of those Labour MPs who responded, only three had changed their minds, partly as a result of the package unveiled last week by the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke. At the very least this shows there is no tidal wave of backbench support moving towards the Government's position.
What should alarm Mr Blair and Mr Clarke more is the reason for the continuing defiance of MPs. Many of them remain opposed to the principle of allowing universities to charge variable fees. This means that even further financial concessions from the Government are unlikely to win them over. The hard-liners want Mr Clarke to drop the principle altogether. Mr Clarke will not do that.
In today's Independent on Sunday he reiterates his view that the package must be taken as a whole, rather than à la carte.
What makes the build-up to the vote especially nerve-racking for the Prime Minister is that not all the rebels are natural trouble-makers. Some of them have agonised over their position and had hoped to be won over by Mr Clarke's statement. They are reluctant rebels who have concluded that on this issue they are ready to defy the whips.
This is not the end of the matter. The vote is more than two weeks away. The survey suggests that several Labour MPs are undecided about how they will vote. Evidently they could be won over. Some of those who are still to make up their minds told us they were moving towards the Government's position.
Mr Clarke has raised the possibility of further "refinements". The stakes are so high a refinement could mean a lot more money being made available for students from poorer backgrounds. There is also the possibility that the Hutton report will be published in the same week as the vote. Some normally loyal Labour MPs might recoil at the prospect of dealing Mr Blair a body blow at the same time as he deals with the ramifications of Hutton.
Ministers tell me they expect about 75 Labour MPs to rebel; the Government would still win the vote under such circumstances. By describing the policy as the flagship for his second term, Mr Blair has raised the stakes. It would be a near-fatal blow to his authority if the flagship were sunk by his own MPs. No doubt there are some backbenchers who will vote against the Bill precisely because of the blow it would inflict on Mr Blair. In the survey there are several who were never supporters of the Prime Minister and several others who would prefer Gordon Brown to take over.
I suspect they will be cancelled out by the doubters who will vote with the Government because they do not want to inflict a humiliating defeat on their leader. Most dissenters are preoccupied by the substance of the policy rather than the implications for Mr Blair. It is difficult to pinpoint what Mr Blair can say to win the vote without going back on his publicly stated beliefs.
The concessions have had no effect on my position. I don't want to see a two-tier system. I would definitely vote against the Bill
I'm still concerned about the variable element. The concessions haven't influenced me in any way. I'd vote against the Bill
I am opposed to tuition fees [but] should I vote against my government - helping Howard? I will probably vote against
The answer to this whole issue is to increase general taxation - if they did that there would be no need for the Bill in the first place
I will vote against. The cap will come off after five years, costs are going to rise, so the Bill is not going to deliver what they wantedReuse content