'Militant' Brownites blamed for bitter splits within Labour

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One of Tony Blair's most trusted allies accused Brownite MPs of being a "party within a party" yesterday amid concern in Downing Street at the scale of the top-up fees rebellion. Jack Cunningham, the former cabinet "enforcer", used the term that Labour headquarters employed in the 1980s to attack the hard-left Militant Tendency group to describe the top-up fee rebels.

The former agriculture minister agreed there were "bitter divisions" within Labour in the wake of Tuesday's knife-edge victory for Mr Blair, but claimed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was at odds with the grass roots and warned that internal warfare must stop.

In comments aimed directly at the rebel ringleaders Nick Brown and George Mudie, both closely allied with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, Mr Cunningham told BBC Radio 4: "I spent 18 years in opposition. We were fighting then in the Labour Party on all sorts of fronts, against, in particular Militant Tendency, the hard left, to stop the development of a party within a party. That's another lesson the PLP has to learn. "A former chief whip, a former deputy chief whip, openly, coherently planning to bring defeat to their own government ... gets perilously close to that doesn't it?"

Nick Brown acted as unofficial chief whip to the rebel MPs, but made a dramatic conversion to the Government cause on Tuesday morning, claiming he had secured last-minute concessions.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, admitted yesterday at a stormy meeting of the PLP that mistakes had been made before the vote. He said the Government had learnt lessons and would not bounce policies on unsuspecting backbenchers again.

But amid recriminations about the growing numbers of serial rebels, loyalists warned that the Government risked falling into the internal warfare of the Callaghan administration or the faction-fighting which dogged John Major's premiership. But one former minister said: "I was absolutely gobsmacked when I heard Jack [Cunningham]. It's obviously complete rubbish. I don't know what Jack is up to. He is close to that lot [in No 10] but I don't know whether his comments were sanctioned. I can't believe they were."

One whip added: "Gordon was working hard to get people on board over the past week. If you look at who rebelled, in the end there is no evidence of lots of people close to Gordon."

Rebels insisted they would fight on to secure further concessions during the Bill's passage through the Commons. MPs who dropped their opposition to the Bill insisted they wanted a clear commitment "on the record" that primary legislation would be needed to lift the £3,000 cap on fees.

They threatened a further battle over variable fees at the Bill's report stage. Liberal Democrats have already drawn up amendments aimed at removing the ability of universities to vary their fees, and Mr Blair also faces a tough battle over other parts of the Bill in the Lords. Mr Blair told MPs the narrow victory was down to the "combined efforts of the Government putting a wonderful case to the Government".

Frank Dobson, the former secretary of state for health warned: "There have to be considerably more changes for the Bill to go through." But leading universities will meet today to consider demanding that ministers should make no further concessions during the Bill's passage through Parliament.

Professor Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group which represents the country's 19 main research universities, said the group was anxious to stop the proposals being further watered down. The group believes the maximum cap on top-up fees should have been set at £5,000 rather than £3,000 and would oppose further delays in being able to lift the cap.

Professor David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, in the constituency of Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, said: "I'm relieved and pleased at the decision to pass it. What we've seen is the beginning of a new era for higher education in which we will have begun to address 20 years of underfunding."

But Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, announced a union week of action against top-up fees beginning on Monday 23 February. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the decision marked "a dark and depressing moment" for academics. "We pledge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the NUS to tackle the twin problems of variable top-up fees for students and poor pay for staff."

* Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, is to offer students four years' tuition for the price of three. The university college will give bursaries of up to £3,010 to meet fees in the fourth year if students have spent three years on degree courses at the college and attained a 2:1 or above.