Rebel MPs warned not to turn their backs on Blair

February 6, 2004

Rebel Labour MPs who fail to see that their political future is tied to the standing of Tony Blair's government could count the cost at the ballot box, Charles Clarke has warned.

In a dig at his constituency neighbour Ian Gibson, Mr Clarke said that top-up fees rebels in marginal seats had underestimated their dependence on the government for survival.

Ironically, Dr Gibson - who holds Norwich North with a 5,863 majority - said he thought that voters would barely remember the fees row in a year's time. He said constituency mailbags were still dominated by questions about the other public services and crime.

But Mr Clarke said: "I know that Ian has had some serious criticisms from party members, and I believe some people have been taking him on.

"Individual MPs - and this doesn't apply just to Ian - in relatively marginal seats who don't appreciate that it is the standing of the Blair government as a whole that wins them support, or doesn't, are making a mistake in my opinion."

Nevertheless, Dr Gibson said: "I doubt if this debate will be remembered by the electorate in a year's time. I also doubt that people will see it in terms of the two Norwich Labour MPs slugging it out. I still get more letters about other subjects - like motoring fines, the state of the hospital, and crime - than tuition fees."

But the mood in the two constituencies still reveals marked differences in opinion about fees.

The Right Rev Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, said: "I think that universities certainly need more money. But there has to be balance between what students can afford - the indebtedness at the end of their course - and what the taxpayer puts in.

"I'm not against fees being paid, but I am worried about the level of debt that students will be entering into at the start of their working lives."

But John Pinnington, headteacher of Notre Dame High School, where 80 per cent of sixth-formers go into higher education, said: "Understandably there will be some concern, but I don't think it will be strong enough to reduce numbers applying to go to university. There may be some individuals who feel very strongly who may decide not to go to university, but I think the majority will still see it as a good experience and see the opportunities that come from it and they will go for it."

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