Tuition Fees Crisis Deepens

TONY BLAIR has had a bruising year. Millions have demonstrated against war in Iraq, public sector workers have taken strike action over pay and MPs have revolted over Iraq and foundation hospitals. He even now faces a more capable Tory leader. But it is on the issue of variable top-up fees that Blair faces his biggest challenge.

Blair’s “back me or sack me” ultimatum has backfired and instead galvanised the opposition. At least 170 Labour MPs have signed a motion against the proposals. And it is not just the usual suspects, it includes 25 former ministers and even Blair loyalists. As The Observer commented: “This is no rag-bag of malcontents; this is the heart of the Labour Party.” (7 December)

Blair has referred to variable top-up fees as his flagship; an unfortunate phrase as Thatcher found to her cost with the poll tax. But, unlike Thatcher’s poll tax, top-up fees were ruled out in Labour’s manifesto. If just half the rebel MPs finally vote against the proposals, along with Liberals and Tories, Blair’s flagship will be sunk.

The revolt took Downing Street by surprise. The Bill was due to be published last week with Education Secretary Charles Clarke ruling out any concessions. The scale of the revolt provoked panic forcing the delay of the Bill until the end of January, to give the government more time to sell its proposals to restless backbenchers and a sceptical public.

The rebellion could of course dissipate by the New Year. Labour MPs may be currently piling on the pressure hoping Blair will back down or make substantial concessions. But Blair is intransigent on the core proposals, turning this issue into a question of principle and a test of his leadership – a position borne not from strength but from desperation.

Many Labour MPs in marginal seats are dependent on middle-class votes, first won to New Labour in 1997. Eroding support for Blair amongst this layer, already aggrieved over Iraq and foundation hospitals, threatens their parliamentary careers.

For many backbenchers the current revolt is not just about top-up fees, they are generally fed up with Blair and see a chance to defeat him. One Labour MP said: “I just hate him”. The cabinet is reportedly split on the issue and the rebellion includes supporters of Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Brown himself has publicly supported top-up fees. Whatever his personal views he is not prepared at this stage to risk his leadership prospects by openly challenging Blair. Instead he is hovering in the wings watching Blair take a pounding.

A defeat for Blair on top-up fees could take place the week after the Hutton report into the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly. Both have the potential to severely wound Blair politically. Together it’s not ruled out that they could force his resignation. Blair’s heart palpitations and stomach pains could provide a convenient exit at some stage.

The current rebellion reflects the pressure of growing anger amongst vast swathes of the population towards New Labour. Blair is seen as remote and, crucially, not trusted – something the farcical ‘big conversation’ will not reverse. Whether Blair or Brown is at the helm, workers face increasing misery under New Labour. We will continue to campaign for the alternative of a new mass workers’ party.