There could be a new Prime Minister of this country in February. That seemed the only logical conclusion to draw from Tony Blair's press conference yesterday as he acknowledged that he would be using up all of his remaining authority to secure the passage of legislation to introduce annual tuition fees of up to £3,000 per student.
The fact that the second reading of the Bill to give effect to these proposals has been delayed until the end of January suggests that the advice Mr Blair has received from his whips' office is that at present he has no chance of winning the vote. But this, as the centrepiece Bill of the Queen's Speech, would normally be published by now and given a second reading next week.
Quite what is going to occur over the Christmas recess to change Labour MPs' minds remains obscure. In a crisp, almost impatient performance Mr Blair seemed unwilling to yield to any amendment to the general principle behind the measure, and he was adamant that there would be few, if any, concessions to buy off truculent backbenchers. But prime ministers play this game of invoking the sense of their own righteousness and ability to persuade at their peril. As things stand, Mr Blair is walking into a political crisis that will dwarf anything faced by Margaret Thatcher over the poll tax.
The crucial difference between this rebellion and any of those faced by previous administrations is that the proposed legislation is not backed by any manifesto commitment. Indeed, Labour MPs specifically campaigned on a promise that there would be no top-up fees - "we have legislated to prevent them". So in the view of the average backbencher Mr Blair is forcing through a measure that is directly contrary to the pledges given on the doorstep.
Even the poll tax was introduced with the legitimacy of a manifesto commitment at the 1987 general election. Tory whips were able to burn off recalcitrant MPs by reminding them that this was a flagship promise on which they had been elected. Sir Patrick Cormack and Sir George Young had specifically told their electors that, if elected, they would oppose the poll tax, but the majority of Tory MPs were prey to the argument of the mandate.
As Mr Blair cannot appeal to the argument of the mandate, Labour MPs will correctly argue that it is he who is being disloyal to the Government's promised programme. There are absolutely no arguments, other than "the Tories might win the vote", which government whips can deploy to change the minds of most backbench MPs.
The most that might happen is that the salary threshold at which graduates start paying back their loans could be increased - perhaps to £20,000. But, ironically, by delaying the vote on the basis that such a concession may buy off enough MPs, Mr Blair will give even more incentive for backbenchers to be influenced by the avalanche of mail that they are continuing to receive on this issue.
In 1985, the then Education Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, suggested that there might be a slight increase in the amount contributed by parents towards the maintenance grants. But even this mild proposal was met by a massive wave of protests from backbench Tory MPs. I still shiver at the prospect of reliving the events in Committee Room 14 when backbenchers shouted Sir Keith down. The proposal was not even submitted to the Commons. What drove MPs' anger was the sheer volume of correspondence from constituents, which gummed up the works of their secretaries.
I cannot begin to imagine the hostile reception Labour MPs will be receiving in the post from middle-class voters and from their constituency Labour parties. Unlike the votes on Iraq and the health service reforms, this proposal costs voters directly - in their pockets. So when a whip ear-bashes an MP about loyalty and division lobby defeat, the MP is likely to respond by saying, "I am trying to save my seat - and if I lose, Mr Blair will be out of office anyway."
The Government argues that the burden will fall on graduates when they can afford to repay the loan. But it does not understand that, generally speaking, it will be the parents - current parents of schoolchildren - who will be the most vociferous in their letter-writing and in their determination to wreak retribution on Labour MPs at the polls. The middle classes have a horror of their children starting life in debt.
The Tory opposition, rightly, maintains its opposition to the measure - and not just on opportunistic grounds. True, Robert Jackson, Michael Portillo and the former education minister Lord Baker are sympathetic to the Government. But the rest of the party is united against the Government's target of 50 per cent of school-leavers going to university. The massive expansion of the higher education sector has led to the creation of some universities that are unworthy of the name and have drop-out rates of up to 40 per cent.
If it were not for Mr Blair's parliamentary majority he would be forced to seek an alternative approach. And if the Government had a majority of 50 or less, the Prime Minister would probably not have cabinet support. But even the present majority of 163 may not be enough to save the legislation - or him.Reuse content