TOP-level talks between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown led to Liberal Democrat peers "ratting" on an agreement to send the controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill back to the committee stage, it was claimed this week.
Conservative Baroness Blatch said that the two party leaders negotiated a secret Lib-Lab pact over mutual political aims which resulted in the Liberal Democrat leadership in the Lords suddenly withdrawing a motion to recommit part two of the bill, which covers tuition fees and student loans.
Recommital would have allowed critics to delay the bill and threatened the goverment's ability to introduce fees this autumn.
Conservative and many ordinary Liberal Democrat peers were shocked when Lord Tope, Liberal Democrat education spokesman in the Lords, withdrew his motion for recommital during Monday's report stage session. As late as last week the Liberal Democrats had made it clear they were counting on Conservative support to push through the same motion.
Lady Blatch said: "The Liberal Democrats have acted as rats in this case. The information we have is that the prime minister and Mr Ashdown met and did a deal that may have something to do with the parties' common ground over proportional representation."
Lady Blatch is also angry at the "serious discourtesy" shown to her by education minister Baroness Blackstone and Liberal Democrat leaders, who, she claimed, failed to keep her fully informed.
Lord Tope told peers on Monday that the reason he had decided to withdraw his recommital motion was that he had received "major concessions" from the government.
It emerged that one of the concessions was an extra day, Monday, set aside for the report stage of the bill. The other was a pledge from Baroness Blackstone to adopt a committee stage-style flexible approach to the later report stage, where debates are far more strictly controlled.
But many peers remain highly sceptical. They argued on Monday that Baroness Blackstone has no powers to make concessions during the report stage.
Procedural experts told The THES that, while Baroness Blackstone could be personally flexible by giving way to other peers seeking to interrupt her speeches, individual peers will have less opportunity to speak during Monday's report stage than they would have had if recommital was successful.
Baroness Blackstone is under no obligation to give way more often than the set procedure demands.
Conservative Lord Campbell of Alloway said: "To me this is almost beyond credibility and belief. What did the noble lord, Lord Tope, imagine he was getting other than a pig in a poke?" The Liberal Democrats remain opposed to tuition fees and intend to table further amendments, including one to strike clause 18, which prevents top-up fees, from the bill.