In the news: Austin Mitchell

January 30, 2004

Prominent rebel Austin Mitchell admitted to a certain sense of guilt on Wednesday morning after deciding a few minutes before the vote on the higher education bill to back the government over variable top-up fees.

"I do have my head in my hands rather this morning because I did not contribute to stopping a bill that is not only a bad principle but a very messy way of raising money for universities," said the MP, who used to be on the right of the Labour Party but who thinks people see him as on the left.

Mr Mitchell spotted a golden opportunity. He said he had asked for two concessions on behalf of his constituency in Grimsby that were unrelated to the bill.

"I told them that if these could be agreed, it might help me to make up my mind, and clearly the government was running scared because they did agree.

Now, this morning, I am feeling a bit bad about it but, hey, that's politics."

Mr Mitchell would not be drawn on what he asked for in return for his vote, which he said he had given "through gritted teeth and very miserably".

He said he had not shared his decision with the whips who had been telling him an hour before the vote that the government was losing by eight votes.

He didn't believe them.

Mr Mitchell, a former academic at Nuffield College, Oxford, and author of Talkin Yorksher , said he would do almost anything to help the development and wellbeing of Grimsby.

But he was not the only MP swayed more by his own interests than by lofty principles this week. He said none of the whips' arguments was about the merits of the bill, but about "preserving Tony for the nation".

Mr Blair was diminished by the vote, he added: "He can't keep jumping off cliffs and saying 'catch me' because there will come a point when people will stand there with their hands in their pockets."

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