Rebels stand firm against top-up fees

By Francis Elliott,Andrew Johnson
Sunday 11 January 2004 01:00

Tony Blair is on course to suffer a humiliating and potentially terminal defeat when MPs vote on his proposals for university tuition fees, an exclusive Independent on Sunday survey reveals.

The poll suggests that only a small number of potential rebels have been won over by the concessions announced by the Government last week.

More than a third of the 159 Labour MPs who signed a motion critical of the new measures said that they had not been swayed by concessions last week and were still planning to vote against the Government.

Organisers of the revolt say that more than 100 of the party's backbenchers intend to vote against the Bill. Rebellion on such a scale would be easily enough to defeat the measure and would place Mr Blair's authority as leader in grave danger. Assuming that all MPs in other parties vote against the Government and there are no abstentions, Mr Blair will be defeated if 81 Labour MPs vote against the Higher Education Bill.

The rebels seem set on a collision course with Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education, who writes in this newspaper that there will be no retreat in the face of opposition from Labour MPs.

Mr Clarke insists that the rebels can expect no more concessions. "This is a coherent package to be taken as a whole or not at all," he writes.

Ministers are standing firm on the key question of whether universities should be free to charge differing rates - the main sticking point for many Labour MPs. Mr Blair is expected to repeat the defiant message on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost today.

In the Independent on Sunday survey, just three backbenchers out of 83 interviewed said that the Government had done enough to change their minds with a package of concessions announced last week.

A further 14 said that they were undecided, leaving 59 firmly intending to vote against the Higher Education Bill at second reading on 27 January. The other seven refused to comment. If only a fewMPs who did not respond took a similarly firm line, the Government would be defeated.

Ministers suggest that as many as 20 Tories will vote with the Government, but there is little evidence of such support. Leading Conservatives such as Michael Portillo and Francis Maude, previously critical of the Tories' opposition to variable tuition fees, now say they will vote against the Bill or abstain.

Defeat is bound to throw considerable doubt over Mr Blair's ability to lead his party. Asked last month whether the legislation was a test of his authority, Mr Blair said: "There is no point in denying it, it is very major flagship reform."

Alan Johnson, the minister for higher education, insisted that the vote could yet be won. "It's mission bloody difficult not mission impossible," he said.

Meanwhile leaders of the country's élite Russell Group of universities have warned that they will have to cram courses with overseas students - paying full-cost fees of around £11,000 a year - if the legislation is defeated, so excluding UK youngsters from top universities.

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