PM in mission to quell fees revolt

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair and Charles Clarke will step up their efforts next week to quell a potentially devastating rebellion over plans to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year in top-up fees.

Mr Blair is expected to accompany the Education Secretary at meetings with backbenchers as the Government tries to persuade them to back the policy after 133 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion expressing concern about the proposals. Ministers are determined not to give ground over proposals to allow universities to set their own charges, insisting they can push the scheme through the Commons. But rebels are equally determined to defeat the proposals, arguing they will set up a market in higher education and increase its two-tier nature.

Mr Clarke has already met more than 100 Labour MPs in small groups at Westminster in an effort to persuade them to back his package of reforms.

Privately, ministers believe they have made inroads into backbench opinion. One described the passage of the Bill as "not mission impossible, but mission bloody difficult".

Ministers believe the rebel motion, calling on them to publish alternatives to variable top-up fees, will allow MPs to make a show of defiance but still back the Government in the division lobbies.

One source said: "If they really had the nerve they would have put down a motion saying the House rejects the propoals. If 128 people had signed an early day motion like that we would be in a different ballpark. But that would have been supported by 40 or 50 people."

The source added: "This is a policy that people associate with Tony, and Tony does believe in variability. I'm sure that Tony would like to be talking to people about this because he really believes in this."

One of the concessions being considered is raising the threshold for repayment oftuition fees. But ministers believe any modification of the scheme would have costs as well as benefits.