Short says Blair must resign if he loses fees vote

Clare Short said yesterday that Tony Blair would have to resign as Prime Minister if he loses the crucial Commons vote on plans for universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year.

Blair allies insisted he would not quit if he was defeated despite turning the issue into a vote of confidence. But in a scathing attack on his premiership, Ms Short said his departure would "renew" a Labour Party which was "crumbling away into disillusionment and enormous loss of members."

The former International Development Secretary said attempts by Government whips to bully and "cajole" Labour MPs over tuition fees were not working because they were no longer willing to prop up Mr Blair. "When the whips say you will weaken the Prime Minister they [the MPs] are not so troubled. It is no longer scary to think about weakening Tony Blair and the possibility of him moving on," she said.

Ms Short said it would be "highly desirable" for Mr Blair to quit before the next election to allow the Labour Party to return to its principles. His departure would mean that "a lot of things that have gone wrong would be corrected."

"I don't know how the end will come. I just think it's quite likely it will come before the next election," she said. "And I think certainly for the Labour Party but I also think for the country that would be highly beneficial that Tony should step down and be replaced by a new Labour leader and Prime Minister while we are in office." Ms Short, an ally of Gordon Brown, denied she was part of a campaign to replace Mr Blair with the Chancellor.

But she said Mr Blair's departure would boost Labour's electoral prospects, recalling that John Major won the 1992 election after succeeding Margaret Thatcher. "I think Labour would renew and have a very high chance of its authority being re-established and winning the next election quite well," she said.

Downing Street said last night that the vote on tuition fees would go ahead on 27 January even if it coincides with Lord Hutton's report into the death of Dr David Kelly.

Some ministers had wanted the vote delayed so that it took place after the Hutton report and that rebel MPs would refrain from voting against the Government.

Lord Hutton may now report on 29 January, making it the most critical time of Mr Blair's premiership and heightening the sense of crisis engulfing him. Downing Street said yesterday that delaying the Commons vote until after the Hutton report would look defensive. Ms Short, accused Mr Blair of presiding over an "era of spin and deliberate ambiguity" which had "degraded the expectation of truthfulness" from the Government.

She criticised his former communications director, Alastair Campbell, who she claimed rewrote the resignation letters of every other member of the Cabinet except her. Her claim implies that Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, and Robin Cook, former leader of the House of Commons, had their letters scrutinised by Mr Campbell before publication.

Lord Hutton has said that the media will not see advance copies of his report despite warnings that this would allow the Government and the BBC to put their "spin" on it because they will see it 24 hours before.

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