We won't save Blair from top up fee rebels, Tories warn

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Indy Politics

Conservative MPs will vote "with a clear conscience" alongside Labour rebels and Liberal Democrats later this month in a concerted bid to stop Tony Blair from introducing variable tuition fees for university students.

The clear statement from the party leader Michael Howard and the Shadow Education Secretary, Tim Collins, mean that on the present figures, Mr Blair appears to be heading for the most serious parliamentary defeat suffered by any Prime Minister for a generation.

Ministers were hoping that the Conservatives might soften their opposition to tuition fees after admitting that they have not yet worked out any alternative for making sure that universities have the income they need.

But Mr Collins, writing in today's Independent on Sunday, said: "As Tony Blair contemplates a showdown with his party over top-up fees later this month, he may be hoping that deliverance will come from the Tory benches.

"He should put that hope right out of his mind. We have no intention of letting him off the hook."

Mr Collins also claimed that the proposal to introduce tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year would not generate the income needed to fulfil the Government's target of providing higher education for 50 per cent of school leavers.

Citing research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, he claimed that students would have to be charged at least £12,000, and possibly as much as as £18,000.

"Conservatives will vote against the Bill with a clear conscience," he writes. "Killing the flawed, dishonest and illiberal Bill produced by Mr Blair would be the best favour Parliament could do for our universities."

Dozens of backbench Labour MPs have publicly questioned the policy of bringing in tuition fees, which would vary from course to course, when Labour's 2001 election promised not to.

With Conservatives and MPs from other parties joining the rebels, Mr Blair's government appears to be on course to have a major piece of legislation overthrown in the Commons.

This is something that has not happened since the last Labour government was brought down in 1979.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, believes the Government will scrape together enough support to get the measure through the Commons. He has been holding intensive discussions with Labour MPs in an attempt to to quell the rebellion.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Mr Howard admitted that the Tories have not yet worked out where they will find the funds the universities need, without tuition fees.

Mr Howard said: "I have grave reservations about tuition fees, I believe they would deter people from less well-off families from going to university.

"But we do need to look at all the possibilities. I am not going to rule anything out at this stage.

"When we have reached our conclusions, we will publish our proposals, we will put them to the British people in a manifesto, we will stick to that manifesto.

"We will be straight with the British people when we have completed our review."