Fees: crunch time for Blair and MPs

As the Prime Minister continues to cajole his rebel backbench MPs into backing plans for variable university top-up fees, EADT Political Editor looks at the implications for Tony Blair and the Labour Party.

As the Prime Minister continues to cajole his rebel backbench MPs into backing plans for variable university top-up fees, EADT Political Editor looks at the implications for Tony Blair and the Labour Party.

IN small groups, like naughty boys and girls being hauled into the headmaster's study, Labour MPs are been summoned to 10 Downing Street for face-to-face talks with the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

With a parliamentary majority of more than 160, the Government's future is not at risk next week, even if it loses the vote on its controversial plan in the Higher Education Bill to introduce student to-up fees which could land graduates with a £20,000 debt at the end of a three-year degree course.

The danger is to Tony Blair. If he were to lose the vote – or carry it narrowly thanks the votes of Scottish MPs whose constituencies are unaffected – his authority will have been damaged.

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And with Lord Hutton's report into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of government scientist Dr David Kelly due the following day, he could be under severe pressure.

If Lord Hutton believes that the decision to name Dr Kelly as the BBC's main source – in a Radio 4 report rubbishing the Government's claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to be launched at 45 minutes notice – originated from a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, his position could become untenable.

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Many of the tuition fees rebel MPs have a hidden agenda. They don't like Tony Blair, and they certainly detest the New Labour project. They are appalled that core socialist values have been ditched simply for the sake of delectability.

They mostly represent rock solid, traditional Labour seats, and would have been elected to parliament whoever was party leader.

They do not owe their jobs to Tony Blair's naked appeal to Middle England. They see him as merely Margaret Thatcher in a suit and they would not be unhappy to see him end up with egg all over his face next week.

It is a view shared by many of the party's rank-and-file, those in the constituencies who will be expected to turn out and help re-elect a Labour government when the time comes for a general election. Thousands are deserting the party in droves, as they vote with their wallets not to support New Labour any more.

And most of them were opposed to the war in Iraq, and Tony Blair's shoulder-to-shoulder support for a much-hated – in Labour circles – of a right-wing Republican president, George W. Bush.

To other MPs, opposition is a matter of principle. Braintree's Alan Hurst has severe doubts over variable tuition fees, and although he has voted against the Government on other issues, on Iraq he was 100% behind Tony Blair.

But rebel Lynne Jones still maintains the rebellion will be big enough to overturn the Government's majority. "The people who are saying they are changing their minds are the people who would have been expected to change their minds," claimed the MP for Birmingham's Selly Oak division.

Around 150 Labour MPs signed the Commons Early Day Motion calling for the Government's policy on to-up fees to reversed. But despite Ms Jones's optimism, signs are that that enough of them will either abstain or be persuaded to vote for the Government to ensure the Higher Education is given its second reading next Tuesday.

Sweeteners have been put into the proposals to buy off the rebels. The fees will not be up-front, but will be paid back once students graduate and are earning at least £15,000.

The Prime Minister claims this will not deter students from poorer homes because maintenance grants of up to £1,500 a year will be available.

But he does not deny calculations that a graduate earning money a salary will be paying a marginal rate of income tax at 41% when the repayment of student loans are taken into account.

The case for fees is two-fold. Firstly, universities need extra funding, the Government cannot afford to keep pumping in extra cash, and charging variable fees will help make them competitive with the leading research institutions nationwide, particularly the United States.

Secondly, should taxpayers on low incomes subsidise students who after graduation will earn a far higher income as a result of their degree?

As Mr Blair continues the charm offensive with his backbenchers, the international think tank the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has backed his plans.

It said it would be hard to raise extra funds for universities from general taxes and would be unfair on non-graduates, who received lower salaries.

However, the annual MORI poll for student accommodation company UNITE suggests that 79% of students would have rethought their choice of university if fees of £3,000 had been in force.

However, Education Secretary Charles Clarke took comfort from other findings. "Around 90% of students in the same survey say that the money they are spending is a good investment in their future."

Labour MPs who rebel will be voting for a Tory motion opposing their introduction. Liberal Democrats will also be in the `no' lobby.

Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo, Shadow Secretary for Education and Health, will be leading for the opposition. "My position on tuition fees is well known –I believe that their introduction will be a disaster for taxpayers as well as all students."

Although a Domesday scenario is being writing for the Prime Minister next week, the Labour government will not fall, even if he does or continues in office badly damaged.

The question Labour MPs have to ask themselves is: we may not like Teflon Tony, but do we really want to risk the election of a Conservative government led by Michael Howard for the sake of making the Labour Party ideologically pure?

Whatever his faults, Mr Blair has made the Labour Party acceptable to tens of thousands of natural Conservative voters.

Losing Tony Blair could see a Labour leader being elected who will send the electorate back into the arms of the waiting Tories.

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