We're going to win, say Labour rebels

MPs preparing to vote against top-up fees say the Government does not have enough support to beat them

Fewer than one in 20 of the hard-core of Labour rebels have been persuaded to fall in behind the Government after a week of intense campaigning by ministers and whips, it was claimed last night.

The organisers of what could be the biggest parliamentary rebellion of Tony Blair's leadership say that they have been back to 86 of the MPs on their list of 107 who had pledged to vote against the Government's Higher Education bill.

Three of the 86 said they had changed their minds during the week but the other 83 still intend to vote against the Government, the rebel leader George Mudie said yesterday.

The Government's campaign to push through its legislation will continue tomorrow, when Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, will issue another document on aid for students from low-income families. He is expected to amend his earlier proposals so that students from poorer families arrive at university with £2,700 cash from central government, to spend as they decide.

Tony Blair will address an emergency meeting of Labour MPs tomorrow, and will face a studio audience in BBC's Newsnight programme.

"After a week in which the whips have been working really hard, and they've been spinning that the revolt is crumbling, this is a tacit admission that they've not got the numbers to get the legislation through," Mr Mudie claimed yesterday.

A survey by The Independent on Sunday also shows that the rebellion is almost as solid as it was a week ago, despite the intense efforts of whips and ministers.

The survey found that 75 out of a sample of 115 MPs known to be critical of the policy still say they will refuse to vote for it when it is put to the Commons on 27 January. Another 13 were undecided, 10 intended to back the Government, and 17 refused to comment.

The survey was taken from the list of 160 Labour MPs who signed a Commons motion criticising variable tuition fees. Significantly, very few had changed their position over the past week, although others appear to be open to persuasion in the last nine days before the critical vote.

One former minister, Joan Ruddock, said: "I am satisfied that the Government has dealt with the disincentives for the poorest students, but I'm still concerned about the future levels of fees and debts."

Hilton Dawson, a former rebel who is now likely to back the Government, said: "Charles Clarke has moved a considerable way towards meeting our major concerns. It's a scandal that for the past 40 years we haven't ensured that able people from working class backgrounds are able to go to universities in the proportion they deserve."

Mr Clarke's announcement tomorrow will make no concession on the Government's determination to allow universities to vary their tuition fees from course to course and university to university. Initially, the maximum fee will be £3,000 a year.

The proposal to introduce variable fees is enthusiastically supported by the heads of the main research universities, who want to be freed from having to rely continually on the treasury for their income. But opponents fear it will create a market in university courses, in which the cost of the most popular courses at prestige universities will eventually rise to around £15,000 a year, deterring students from low or middle income families.

Nick Brown, the former chief whip, warned: "It will be difficult to maintain the £3,000 cap as there will be strong pressure to remove it."

With 658 MPs in the Commons, excluding the Speaker Michael Martin, Mr Blair needs 329 of 409 Labour MPs on his side to avoid defeat. Up-to-date figures suggest that the Government's support is hovering around 300, though it is likely to increase over the next few days.

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