The wait is almost over. Within a few days we will know whether Tony Blair has won the vote in the Commons on top-up fees and survived the verdict of Lord Hutton. Even at this late stage the outcome of both nerve-jangling events is uncertain. The threatened rebellion of Labour MPs is not melting away, as some newspapers reported it was last weekend. The opposite is the case. Many of the potential rebels remain stubbornly resistant to ministerial charm offensives. As for the formidable Lord Hutton, no minister has dared to subject him to an offensive of any kind. He is untouchable. On Wednesday he will be a god-like figure shaping the immediate destinies of two mighty and mightily nervous institutions: the Labour Government and the BBC.
Over the introduction of top-up fees the Prime Minister made two miscalculations. The policy was introduced under the vacuous banner of "boldness" following his party conference speech in October 2002. As I argued at the time, boldness cannot be a governing philosophy. After all, leaders can be foolishly bold. Only Mrs Thatcher, a leader who has had an unfortunate impact on Blair's oratory, got away with proclaiming how bold she was. At least in her case she tended to show off about her apparent political courage after a policy had been implemented rather than before. The introduction of top-up fees, as originally conceived and certainly in its latest form, is fair and part of an ambitious objective of increasing the number of students going to university. Blair should have spent more time explaining the nature of the challenge facing the Government after decades of underfunding, as he has done with impressive persuasiveness in recent weeks. When Labour MPs hear him preach vaguely about the importance of being bold they become instinctively suspicious, assuming that he is about to privatise an industry or invade another country.
Even so, most of the potential rebels are sincere in their objections. This is where Blair made a second miscalculation. There is a widespread perception in ministerial circles that the revolt is not just about policy but about Blair himself. It is more serious than that. Most of the rebels feel strongly about the impact of variable fees on students from poorer backgrounds. The former cabinet minister Chris Smith, who will be voting with the Government, pointed out in an interview last weekend that most of those planning to rebel would be doing so with agonised reluctance rather than with relish. In this sense there are echoes of the anti-Maastricht revolts that dogged John Major. The Tory rebellions would have been easier to deal with if they had arisen out of a vague desire to knife a leader. They were more than that. The Conservative dissenters hated the Maastricht Treaty. In my view the Labour rebels are wrong to defy the Government over a fear about what fee a few top universities might charge at some unspecified point in the future. But Blair has underestimated how strongly his own backbenchers feel about this single element of the package.
At least the vote on top-up fees will be straightforward. The Government will win or lose. Lord Hutton's verdict is likely to be less clear-cut. Almost inevitably there will be criticisms for most of those involved. The BBC broadcast a story that was inaccurate and introduced an almighty red herring into the debate about the war. It was known even before the publication of the dossier on the weapons of mass destruction that some intelligence officials were unhappy at the prospect of unprecedented light being shone on their work. Their worries are not surprising given the inaccuracy of the intelligence on Saddam's weapons. Andrew Gilligan's conversation with David Kelly reflected that unease. Gilligan's more sweeping reports and some of the hysterical cues introducing them did much more than that, giving the impression that the Government doctored some of the intelligence, knowing it to be wrong, and then imposed the sexed-up documents on a reluctant Joint Intelligence Committee. This was an allegation as big as Watergate. At first the army of BBC managers, curiously disconnected from the output, did not realise the scale of the allegations. Later they defended them with a naive bullishness, insisting that the story was based on a senior intelligence source when it was not. I wrote several weeks before Kelly's suicide that the BBC should acknowledge flaws in those reports while robustly defending itself against more sweeping allegations from Downing Street that it was "anti-war". Sadly parts of the corporation were irrational in their euphoric assertion of independence.
The behaviour probably stemmed from insecurity rather than arrogance. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke demonstrated to an approving Daily Mail that they were not New Labour lackeys. Other managers were too timid to question the strategy and liked the idea of taking on what they saw as an out-of-control Downing Street spin machine. Before Kelly's death there was some evidence to suggest that parts of the BBC were enjoying the battle, not realising what they were getting into. Meanwhile Blair and his close allies demonstrated their own insecurity in the way Kelly's name became public. They had good cause to reveal his identity - to illustrate the flakiness of the BBC's case. Instead a scheme of mind-boggling complexity was devised to keep their fingerprints concealed. Not for the first time they got into trouble by trying neurotically not to get into trouble.
Soon we will know just how much trouble they are in over Hutton and top-up fees. Yet what is absurd about this cliffhanger is that so much is at stake over so little. Top-up fees will raise a few hundred million pounds for universities, hardly the sort of figure on which a prime minister should stake his political life. The need for BBC licence fee payers to get value for money and accurate reporting matters also. But again the BBC is not an issue over which a prime minister should stand or fall. There are much bigger questions relating to the war that should be the subject of raging debate. Why was the intelligence so wrong? Why did Blair choose to believe it all? The questions become more urgent in the light of the news that David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, has concluded that Saddam had produced no WMD since 1991.
The coming few days will be big and defining, but the issues at stake are relatively trivial. Blair is not putting his premiership on the line over a momentous policy or even over the reasons why Britain went to war against Iraq. His future is at stake over top-up fees and the naming of an individual who chose to take his own life for reasons that none of us know for sure. Assuming Blair survives the week - and I expect he will - let us hope that any future energy sapping acts of boldness will be over matters that are more substantial and productive.Reuse content