Rebels without a cause: the unspoken truth about Mr Blair's many opponents

An improbable alliance has formed. If they all gathered together, they could not find a hint of consensus on alternatives
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The Government's many and diverse critics sense blood. Tomorrow an assortment of MPs from different parties will vote against the detailed proposals aimed at introducing top-up fees for universities. Yesterday in the Commons a similarly wide range of MPs railed over the prospect of a constitution for the European Union. They want a referendum and will not rest until they get it, these crusaders for the people.

The critics are making a lot of noise. If the decibel count is anything to go by the Government is in deep trouble, especially as the dissenters are raging over matters of profound symbolic importance.

In one of his best speeches in recent years Tony Blair attempted to give some shape to his second term at a Labour conference in Cardiff in the winter of 2002. He declared then that the Government had two overriding domestic objectives: one was to improve public services as Margaret Thatcher had revived the private sector in the 1980s, and the other was to resolve Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe.

It is often alleged that this Government has lacked a clear sense of purpose. That is not the case. The purpose is so big, awkward and challenging that nervy ministers, including Mr Blair, are easily diverted. Still, with the next election, looming events have conspired to bring his chosen policy objectives to the top of the agenda.

The introduction of top-up fees symbolises his broader approach to public services, combining increased investment with reforms. With the euro kicked into the long grass, the European constitution is the new means by which he can address Britain's increasingly ambiguous relationships. On both fronts Mr Blair faces critics to the left and right, and from the centre as well. They are everywhere.

Yet the very diversity of these seemingly mighty opponents exposes their weakness. On top-up fees and calls for a referendum on Europe an improbable alliance has formed comprising Conservatives, Labour dissenters and Liberal Democrats. If they all gathered together they would not agree on the reasons for their fleeting alliance, nor would they be able to find a hint of consensus on alternative policies. Such a gathering would be short and fractious. There would not be many laughs.

Currently the Conservatives offer no alternative to top-up fees. Indeed it is their policy to have no policy, at least until the government's proposals have been dealt with. Quite a few of them privately agree with variable top-up fees and I suspect they will be keeping their fingers crossed that the legislation is passed as they tip toe through the "no" lobby. The Shadow Education Secretary, Tim Yeo, has said that he will announce his policies in the summer, but rules out charging students or increases in public spending to pay for improved funding for universities that he accepts is necessary.

On GMTV's Sunday programme he told me that he had hit upon another "stream of funding", but he would not reveal yet what that was. With considerable skill Mr Yeo has moved swiftly to drop his party's position under Iain Duncan Smith, which was to deny that universities required additional funding. Now he faces the bigger challenge of explaining where the money would come from if the Conservatives formed the next government.

Labour's dissenters are a mixed bunch. Quite rightly there has been much comment about their willingness to rebel in large numbers on a range of policies. Less is made of what a shapeless group they are. In general terms the rebels do not have strong leaders or a clear sense of political direction. The left-wing Campaign Group is in a state of near-permanent crisis and has had many disagreements of its own recently. Others dissent erratically and without any coherent organisation.

As far as top-up fees are concerned, some Labour MPs insist that students should be financed out of general taxation. Others accept the principle that students should make a payment, but oppose variable fees. They support the government's ambition to get 50 per cent of youngsters into university. The Conservatives do not.

The Liberal Democrats do support a further expansion of higher education and would pay for the increased costs by the introduction of a new 50 per cent top rate of tax for high-earners. They deserve praise for having the political courage to make the powerful case for a higher tax rate, but they have not explained convincingly why they would spend the much-needed cash on privileged students rather than on more deserving causes.

The shrieking calls for a referendum on the EU constitution are a more extreme example of political expediency disguised as conviction. Most Conservatives and some Labour MPs believe that they would secure a "no" vote. They want a referendum because they believe they would win it. They are less keen on single -issue polls if they appear to be on the minority side.

Again to their credit, the Liberal Democrats have been consistent in supporting referendums and were the first to advocate one for the euro. Unlike the others, they support a constitution. Even so, they have the luxury of calling for referendums without facing the full calamitous consequences of being on the losing side. In my view it would be politically fatal for the Government to lose a referendum on the constitution.

I am deeply suspicious of referendums. British political leaders offer them out of weakness, a desire to postpone difficult issues, or to keep their own parties together. They never hold them on principle. The referendum in 1975 on Britain's continued membership in Europe was a device to keep the divided Labour government together. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Jim Callaghan, described it as a "life raft". Similarly the plebiscite on the euro was offered by John Major in the mid-1990s in an attempt to plaster over the cracks. Mr Blair felt obliged to follow suit. For the weakest of reasons we are now stuck with the pledge to hold a referendum on the euro.

Mr Blair has also offered many referendums on relatively minor matters such as the election of mayors - a worthy innovation that could have been agreed in parliament. Still, previous errors are not a reason for making another one. Now his role is to demythologise the scare stories about the new constitution rather than reinforce them by calling a referendum.

He swatted the scare stories away persuasively in the Commons yesterday afternoon as well as posing the deadly question: Would Britain prefer to pull out of Europe altogether and let the other countries get on with agreeing the constitution they all seek?

Mr Blair's opponents have no answer to that because they do not want to be seen as arguing for withdrawal, a policy position that is unpopular. It is the same with top-up fees. This large, articulate, noisy and headline-grabbing alliance has no coherent, credible and politically acceptable alternative route, certainly none that they could all agree on.

On these big thorny issues the opposition looks strong but is weak. The Government appears vulnerable but is strong.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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