Now Mr Blair must start to win back the support of his neglected backbenchers

The revolt suggests that Mr Blair is in danger of establishing the same fatal relationship with his own MPs as John Major
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The Independent Online

So Tony Blair breathes again. Until mid morning yesterday it looked as if he was heading for a calamitous defeat. The outcome of last night's vote on the introduction of top-up fees was therefore good news for him. A traumatic, energy-sapping victory is better than no victory at all.

But this is good news for Mr Blair against the darkest of backgrounds. His backbenchers, or enough of them, stepped back from the brink only at the last moment. How did they get there in the first place? What were the factors that brought a government with a mighty majority to its knees over a policy that will raise a relatively tiny sum of money?

One lesson is obvious. Mr Blair has to spend more time cultivating his own MPs. He cannot carry on like this, not fully in control of a substantial section of his own parliamentary party. It is too easy to dismiss the current discontent as arising solely from the frustrated machinations of sacked ministers, ambitious Brownites and those who fit into both categories. Even some of Mr Blair's most ardent supporters on the backbenches have complained that they feel neglected and taken for granted as controversial policies are rushed out from Downing Street.

They have good cause for their complaints. When the proposal to introduce top-up fees arose from nowhere I had a long conversation with a senior figure in Downing Street. He was hugely worried about the impact on the Daily Mail readership, the middle England voters, suggesting the Government could not take risks with them very often. The doubts of Labour MPs were not mentioned. At that point I suspect the insider envisaged a wooing offensive with the media (which took place and was highly successful) and a broader political positioning that Mr Blair always enjoys, one in which he is seen taking on a few left wing MPs. In the end Mr Blair was battling it out with quite a few Labour MPs who did not want to hurt him politically, but were genuinely bothered about parts of the policy. He is right to be concerned about how he is reported in the powerful, omnipotent media but he needs to spend more time consulting his own MPs in advance of policy announcements rather than in the nerve jangling build up to a vote.

What would help him in this mission is if, occasionally, he were to take a high profile over controversial proposals that united most of his party. Mr Blair tends to be publicly bold when he is taking on some of his own side with the support of right wing newspapers. He has crusaded with spectacular passion over the abolition of Clause Four, the importance of the private sector playing a bigger role in public services, the war against Iraq, foundation hospitals and top up fees.

He has rarely used his privileged pulpit to challenge some of the prejudices that The Sun newspaper formed in the 1980s and still espouse today. Mrs Thatcher spent more than a decade taking on the Labour Party, bashing it around. Mr Blair has spent nearly 10 years doing the same. It is hardly surprising that the wider electorate is starting to form the impression of a sclerotic divide between Mr Blair and his own parliamentary party.

In the end Gordon Brown played a role in bridging this latest divide, convincing a few of his close allies to support the Government. It should not be underestimated that it was in Mr Brown's interests as much as Mr Blair's that the Government won last night. It would be a disaster for the Chancellor if he was to succeed Mr Blair in the context of a humiliating defeat over Prime Ministerial attempts to reform the public sector. The symbolism would be awful: a modernising leader swept aside by old Labour.

The context in which a leader succeeds matters hugely. John Major's nightmare is partly explained by the fact that he followed a leader after an act of regicide from which his party never recovered. Mr Brown needs to be extremely careful how he deploys the growing number of Labour MPs who are keen for him to succeed Mr Blair.

Last night was also a reminder that Mr Blair needs to be very careful about he treats the Chancellor. At the very least he must make sure the Chancellor is on board before controversial proposals are announced. Mr Brown is not a one dimensional figure obsessed solely by taking over from Mr Blair. Yes, he wants the top job, but he has had genuine and substantial concerns about the recent public sector reforms that have emerged from Downing Street. Mr Blair is impatient. He has an ambitious and worthy objective of reviving the public sector, retaining and in many cases regaining the commitment of the middle classes seeking private alternatives. But he cannot do it without Mr Brown's backing.

Last year the Chancellor delivered an important speech on the relationship between markets and a Labour government, the opportunities provided by markets and the limitations. The two of them should have a long discussion on the policy implications of that speech. There is just the possibility the two of them might be able to build on their recent limited rapprochement. As ever the future of this Government will depend on the degree to which the two of them can work together. If they fail to do so the Government will implode, not necessarily to Mr Brown's benefit.

The single hope for Mr Blair is that last night's rebels were not united in their discontent. There was a small group of MPs insisting that the underfunding of universities should be met entirely from general taxation, but most of the rebels accepted the argument that students should make a contribution. They were concerned with the introduction of variable fees for different universities and courses. Or to be more precise they were worried about what some universities might be charging in 10 years' time.

They feared that Oxbridge might not be an oasis for families from lower incomes in the future. But they were not insisting that tax increases were the solution for every spending demand. Instead they lost a sense of proportion, threatening to destroy the authority of a Prime Minister over a redistributive package that will result in graduates on decent incomes making an additional payment of £5 a week in order to help the expansion of universities.

The fact that they did so suggests that this is a government and a parliamentary party in a state of turmoil. John Major was doomed when he lost control of his own MPs. Tory rebels started to enjoy themselves tormenting their leader. The parliamentary revolts over the last year suggest Mr Blair's is in danger of establishing a similarly fatal relationship with his own MPs.

Last night's narrow win gives him another chance. The concessions were not as great as Nick Brown claimed as he switched from leading rebel to Government loyalist. Offers of policy reviews and reviews of reviews are nowhere near as significant as the fact that the vote was won with the principle of variable fees still in place. But Labour MPs are restive. Mr Blair must address their restiveness. The close outcome of last night's vote suggests he has no choice.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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