Tony Blair owes his success in getting foundation hospitals on to the statute book to Michael Howard. Government whips persuaded enough Labour backbenchers to ignore their personal concerns and better judgement by conjuring up the spectre of the Leader of the Opposition gloating at the Prime Minister's discomfort.
In an effort to rack up the pressure over top-up fees government whips have been making dark suggestions that Blair would have to resign if he lost the vote on this issue. A more paranoid minority have even been suggesting that this is what motivates those of us who oppose variable top-up fees. Both these lines have been taken up by Tory newspapers and some of the more gullible souls on television and radio.
Both ideas are ridiculous. Prime ministers don't resign if they lose a vote in the House of Commons. They are expected to resign if they lose a formal vote of confidence, and the vote on top-up fees isn't that. A defeat for the Government would mean that the House of Commons had rejected one of many alternative ways of finding more money for higher education. If the loss of any vote in the Commons were to oblige the Prime Minister to resign, every debate would be all-or-nothing - no room for dissent or even discussion. It would be a negation of representative democracy.
Nor is it true that those of us who oppose top-up fees want rid of Tony Blair. He is the most successful prime minister of modern times. We oppose top-up fees because we promised not to introduce them at the last general election. We made that promise because we thought they were wrong, and we still do. All we seek is for the Prime Minister to look at alternatives. At the moment, with this take-it-or-leave-it proposition, the PM seems to be pursuing that syllogism "something must be done; this is something; therefore this must be done".
The latest twist to the horror stories being put about by whips is that, with the Hutton report coming out the day after the vote, we mustn't do anything to weaken Blair's position over Hutton. I don't see it. Top-up fees are to do with policy. The only way the Hutton report could harm him would be if it amounted to a frontal attack on his integrity. I don't think it will, but if it did, a unanimous vote by the Parliamentary Labour Party in favour of top-up fees on 27 January wouldn't help one jot with his problems on 28 January.
So I hope Labour MPs will decide how to vote on the merits of the arguments and, dare I say it, bearing in mind the electoral consequences of their votes. I believe that variable top-up fees will leave English universities and their students at the mercy of market forces. No one believes that the limit for top-up fees will stay at £3,000. We all know the leading advocates of top-up fees see this as a first step, leading to £15,000 for the élite universities. That would leave the best-off institutions and best-off students getting the best deal at the expense of the rest, and so reinforce inequalities in society.
Then there are the electoral consequences. If variable top-up fees go through I don't see that gaining many votes for Labour at the next general election. It wouldn't even guarantee the block vote of vice-chancellors, editors and columnists. But it will lose Labour some votes. Just imagine being a Labour MP in a marginal seat: they will knock on the door of a family sending a daughter or son, or both, to university - then they will have to explain that if they are re-elected it will cost the children £9,000 each. They
will be followed to the front door by Tory and Lib Dem canvassers saying, "Vote for us; it will cost you nothing".
So I say to my colleagues who oppose variable top-up fees, stick to your guns. Voting "no" won't get rid of the Prime Minister. Voting "yes" could get rid of a lot of Labour MPs.
Frank Dobson was a cabinet minister from 1997-99
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