They won. Heads rolled. So why is nobody celebrating?

Andy McSmith, political editor, on an extraordinary week that has seen Labour snatch defeat from victory
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Indy Politics

It has been a very long and very odd week in politics. It began with Tony Blair facing a crisis so serious that some wondered whether he would still be in office by this weekend. Tuesday's narrow escape was followed on Wednesday by the unexpected, unqualified triumph of the Hutton report. Yet by yesterday, the Government's mood had descended from euphoria to anxiety, when it seemed that an overdose of triumphalism had created new, intractable problems.

Politicians specialise in the unstraight answer; winding, airy sentences that begin by sounding as if they might say something but end in a fog of ambiguity. But last Tuesday's crisis, when the Higher Education Bill came within a whisker of being thrown out by the House of Commons, was so serious that ministers were driven to say what they meant.

The Higher Education minister, Alan Johnson, was summing up the Government's case when he was interrupted by a rebel, Richard Burden, who asked whether the Commons would have final say over whether universities would be allowed to raise fees beyond the proposed limit of £3,000 a year. Mr Johnson, in a hurry to complete his speech, answered in four words: "Yes, it undoubtedly would." That was enough to sway Mr Burden. Barbara Roche, a former minister who had vowed to vote against, also decided to back the Government when she heard those words.

The rebels had feared that élite universities would charge prices that would force students from low or middle income families to study cheap courses at cheap institutions.

The legislation, which has now begun its journey through Parliament, sets a limit of £3,000 a year on tuition fees - not nearly enough for some universities.

In the days of horsetrading that preceded Tuesday's vote, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, had promised the rebels that the limit would apply at least until the general election after next, shifting the worries of the rebels on to what might happen after that date.

Many were fearful of giving way before they had gained every possible concession. Their anxiety increased in a mix-up which followed the announcement by Nick Brown, a rebel leader and former chief whip, that he was going over to the government side.

An early report gave the impression that he was claiming Mr Blair had given in on the whole principle that universities could charge different fees for different courses, which would have left the Prime Minister open to vehement criticism from universities. Consequently, a Downing Street briefing appeared to belittle Mr Brown, making other rebels reluctant to follow his lead.

At lunchtime, the whips calculated that they were eight votes short of a majority. Gordon Brown spent the day meeting about 45 potential rebels. His camp says he persuaded more than half a dozen to back off. But when Mr Clarke went in to hear his deputy summing up, 20 minutes before the vote, he was warned to expect defeat. Probably only Mr Johnson uttering that categorical "yes" brought victory.

That night there seemed to be another victory on the horizon when early editions of The Sun revealed that the Hutton report had cleared Tony Blair and the signs were that it would be highly critical of the BBC. The next day when Hutton began his oration in the Law Courts it was clear that the Prime Minister and his colleagues were off the hook.

Labour's hubris was committed at 2pm on Wednesday when MPs packed the House of Commons brandishingcopies of the Hutton report, determined to display triumphal unity.

The opening chord had been struck during Prime Minister's Questions by Sion Simon, a former Daily Telegraph journalist turned Labour MP, who described the BBC as the "enemy within" and added that it should be privatised "sooner rather than later".

Labour's mood was aided by Michael Howard stumbling through his worst Commons performance since his appointment as opposition leader. It appears that Mr Howard's advisers had not prepared for the possibility that the Hutton report would be so favourable to the Government. Devoid of a Plan B, Mr Howard ploughed ahead with an attack on Mr Blair as if he had just been condemned by the judge.

The Tory leader privately admitted that he had had an off-day, a point rammed home by the booing and hissing from across the aisle. Mr Blair, who looked like a man emerging from a long dark tunnel, delivered the memorable put-down: "What you should understand is that being nasty is not the same as being effective, and opportunism is not the same as leadership."

But what Labour MPs missed in their euphoria was the possibility that the BBC might be more trusted and more popular with the public than the Government. There were fears, voiced by Mark Seddon, a left-wing member of Labour's National Executive, that the forthcoming review of the BBC's structure might be used to exact political revenge and curb the corporation.

Within days, newspaper reactions, opinion polls and protests from BBC staff at the departure of Greg Dyke made Mr Blair's advisers wonder, in despair, what more they had to do to make the public believe their good intentions.

Mr Blair bravely gave a speech saying that the Government must continue with public service reform, despite Tuesday's near disaster. But on the quiet, the order went down that there must be no more personal attacks on leading rebels, not even George Mudie.

From the office of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, there have been none but conciliatory noises since the big names at the corporation resigned. She insists that the licence fee is the best way to protect the strength and independence of the BBC.

If the Government had contemplated doing anything like privatising the BBC, this is now less likely than ever, as the public would see it as an attempt to suppress a popular institution.

Public distrust over the motives for war mean that Mr Blair is unlikely ever again to stand at George Bush's side in a foreign intervention. And if he is thinking of the controversial reform of any public service, he will have to consider the size of Tuesday's rebellion and ask himself whether the policy would get through. The past week's turmoil means nothing much is going to change.

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