Tony Blair's enthusiasm for allowing universities to charge their students top-up fees has been inspired by private chats with one of the most controversial figures in recent Labour history: Roy Jenkins.
He revealed Lord Jenkins's involvement to astonished Education ministers in a private meeting at 10 Downing Street shortly before the dramatic resignation of the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.
During a heated discussion, the Higher Education minister, Margaret Hodge, is reported to have asked Mr Blair directly why he was advocating an idea which contradicted a promise made in Labour's election manifesto last year. "He said that Jenkins convinced him that it was the right thing to do," a Whitehall insider told The Independent on Sunday.
Lord Jenkins, who will be 82 tomorrow, has been chancellor of Oxford University since 1987, when he resigned the leadership of the short-lived Social Democratic Party.
The involvement of the founder of the SDP will exacerbate tension on the Labour benches, where there is growing opposition to top-up fees.
Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair's chief policy adviser and one of those pushing for top-up fees to be considered, is a former SDP member and is
working on an authorised biography of Lord Jenkins.
The manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees is regarded as binding on the Government until the next election, but does not rule out the possibility that they could be introduced in 2006 or later.
More than 130 MPs, including about 90 Labour MPs, have signed a Commons motion urging that they be ruled out for the next Parliament as well, which eliminates the possibility that students will be paying charges before 2010.
The row over top-up fees has compelled the Government to delay publication of radical proposals for reforming higher education. A paper which was due next week will now be published next year.
A number of serving government ministers privately oppose top-up fees, warning that even Margaret Thatcher would have backed away from a measure which is likely to enrage parents.
One minister said: "There was a vacuum in the search for a solution to the problem of university funding into which advisers and the big universities have convinced him this is an answer. Maggie knew not to mess with Middle England and Blair had better wake up to that. Otherwise it will end up biting him on the bum."
Cambridge University will tomorrow consider breaking ranks with Britain's other elite higher education institutions by coming out in opposition to top-up fees for students, writes Richard Garner. Its ruling council will consider backing a statement urging the Government to explore other ways of raising extra cash.
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