Key Blair legislation barely survives

Victory margin is 5 votes for measure to revamp higher education system

January 28, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair narrowly defeated last night a revolt in his party over legislation in Parliament to revamp the country's higher education system, avoiding a political humiliation that threatened to bring down his government.

The close victory was a substantial boost for Blair on the eve of an even greater challenge. Lord Hutton, the senior judge charged with investigating the events surrounding the death of a government weapons scientist, David Kelly, is to issue the findings of his investigation today.

The university funding bill, which passed the House of Commons 316-311, will require British university students to begin paying as much as $5,300 a year starting in 2006. Currently Britons, like most Europeans, make nominal tuition contributions toward the cost of their college degrees.

The bill triggered a revolt within the Labor Party, with 159 Labor members declaring opposition to parts of the bill, forcing concessions and negotiations with the dissenters.

The legislation became a referendum on Blair's hold over the party after 6 1/2 years in office and a reflection of deep discontent with his Iraq policy and his style of governance.

Clare Short, one of the leading dissenters, who quit the government last spring over the decision to go to war in Iraq, accused Blair yesterday of acting more like a president than prime minister.

Blair, working the telephones in recent days and demanding loyalty from the rank and file, narrowly rescued a flagship piece of legislation that is part of the broader social agenda he would like to enact to reform the national health system and the beleaguered railways.

Charles Clarke, Blair's education secretary, started the seven-hour debate yesterday by telling the House of Commons, where Labor controls 408 of 659 seats, that its decision would "determine the future of our universities and so determine the future ability of this country to prosper in the increasingly competitive global economy."

As more students enter the system, he said, "we cannot continue to rely on the taxpayers alone" to finance university education.

Some Conservative members, concerned about the decline of British universities under the pressure of increasing enrollments, spoke in favor of Blair's attempt to build a new financial foundation for them.

Blair, who was in the chamber for the start of the debate, was also preparing to respond to Lord Hutton's findings related to Kelly's suicide.

Kelly's death in July set off the political crisis over the credibility of Blair's government and the reliability of intelligence reports used to support the case for war in Iraq.

Kelly, a prominent expert on Iraq's biological weapons programs, expressed private concerns to BBC reporters about the government's use of intelligence, but in public statements he said that he regarded Saddam Hussein as a threat.

In May, the BBC reported that Blair's aides had "sexed up" the intelligence on the war in a September 2002 dossier released to the public.

Blair and his aides have attacked the BBC's reporting as inaccurate and biased.

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