Peter Oborne

The Tories should support Tony Blair’s magnificent defiance of his own party

The Tories should support Tony Blair's magnificent defiance of his own party

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The intelligent case for voting for Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 was simple and very compelling. Only New Labour could bring about deep-seated reform of British public services. The argument went as follows: the Tories would never be trusted to tamper with the NHS or the social security system. Their motives were suspect. The voters were easily convinced that their real agenda was privatisation. Just as Richard Nixon, a Republican president, was the only political leader who could restore relations with communist China, so Labour's Tony Blair was the only man who could take on the public-sector workers.

All the brightest and best people around the Prime Minister ' Geoff Mulgan, Frank Field, David Simon, Andrew Adonis, Peter Mandelson, Roy Jenkins, David Miliband ' passionately believed this. So did Tony Blair himself. The bitterest disappointment of the last seven years has been the slow, agonising discovery that this belief was unfounded. The modern Labour party may no longer represent the old industrial working class. It is made up instead of state employees of one kind or another: teachers, council workers, civil servants. With a few heartwarming exceptions, these are churlishly protective of their narrow self-interest, and as sentimentally attached to Spanish practices as any Coventry car-worker in the 1970s. Through the unions, the constituency parties and, to a steadily increasing extent, Labour MPs, public-sector workers represent a formidable power bloc for any ambitious politician on the make, and are eager to do damage to the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown spotted this point very early on and has made ruthless use of it ever since. He contemptuously smashed Frank Field's audacious plans for welfare reform within six months of the 1997 election victory, and last summer made a mockery of Downing Street's scheme for foundation hospitals. There is a great contradiction at the heart of the Chancellor. When he goes abroad there is no greater advocate of free-market reform. He loves to travel the world earning praise in the Wall Street Journal, right-wing US think tanks and British Eurosceptic newspapers for laying into the supply-side rigidities that bedevil the rest of the European Union.

Reform within the United Kingdom is another matter. To this the Chancellor has been adamantly opposed. He attended the annual conference of every single public-service union this year, on occasion making it crystal clear that he sided with the unions against Downing Street. As far as domestic policy is concerned, he has emasculated the Prime Minister, the reason why so many members of Tony Blair's immediate entourage would so dearly like to see him sacked.

Though composed of a number of divergent elements, this week's rebellion over the Higher Education Bill is fundamentally a Brownite affair. This is what gives it such weight, and makes it potentially fatal to Tony Blair. The insurgents are being led by the former chief whip Nick Brown, who would have run the ncellor's campaign for the party leadership in 1994. Nick Brown's old deputy from the whips office, George Mudie, is acting as his lieutenant. So is Ian Gibson, another of the Chancellor's backbench organisers. Extra venom is added to proceedings by the fact that the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke ' a longstanding Brownite target who once memorably labelled the Chancellor 'power-crazed and bonkers' ' is in the firing line. The removal of Clarke has been a medium-term Brownite objective for some time.

The crucial giveaway, however, is the wording of the early day motion critical of the Higher Education Bill. So far it has been signed by 148 Labour MPs ' a staggering number, more than enough to comfortably obliterate even Tony Blair's huge Commons majority. This EDM makes clear that the rebels have no problem with the proposition that university students should contribute to the cost of their education. Quite the contrary: most of them strongly approve. Their quarrel is with the method proposed by the Prime Minister: his beloved variable top-up fees.

Instead they want a flat-rate payment. When all is said and done, this boils down to something very like the graduate tax which the Chancellor has supported from the start. Variable fees set our universities free, give them autonomy, allow them to compete against one another and may well permit the development of an elite British Ivy League along US lines. All of this is hateful to Gordon Brown, the most centralising chancellor since Stafford Cripps. A graduate tax, administered by the Treasury, would place the universities under total Whitehall control. It would enable the Chancellor, for instance, to exact a ferocious financial revenge on Oxford University for turning down Laura Spence. It would enable Gordon Brown to destroy what remains of the integrity of the famous British university system, and to use tertiary education as a method of social manipulation and control.

Tony Blair wants to avoid all this. It is true that Downing Street has made the usual mistakes in drafting the Higher Education Bill. As ever these have been caused by the Prime Minister's most characteristic weakness: his instinctive tendency towards secrecy and deceit. The Labour manifesto of 2001 explicitly ruled out top-up fees; no one was consulted; and yet within months of the election victory the Prime Minister's policy adviser Andrew Adonis was hard at work on policy preparation.

For all that, there is something admirable, splendid, even magnificent about the Prime Minister's determination to press this flagship measure through in defiance of his own party. The Higher Education Bill, as currently structured, fits precisely with the original, thrilling philosophy of radical reform which made New Labour such an attractive proposition seven years ago. The Prime Minister will earn great credit, and find his domestic position hugely strengthened, if he has the courage to go with it. The Tory position is contemptible: Michael Howard is wrong to lead the Tories against a measure which fits so comfortably with the overwhelming Conservative belief in freedom for our great public institutions. Sordid party advantage is his only motive, and he should be above that.

The deep battle over tuition fees, however, is between Blair and his own party. On Tuesday the Chancellor made an interesting speech in which he expressed guarded general support for the measure. The background to this latest intervention is still mysterious. There is well-informed talk in Whitehall that things have recently got easier between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. If true, it is a development of the keenest importance with consequences that go far beyond the argument over university education. But the Chancellor remained tellingly silent on variable fees. If Tony Blair gives way on that vital issue of principle in order to secure the passage of the legislation, he will have on his hands a fiasco as shameful as foundation hospitals ' a fine idea killed by the Labour party. If the Prime Minister gives way, he might as well give up. If he wins, he will have done something to redeem his premiership.