Tony Blair survived probably his toughest week in office, but he emerged with more than a few scratches to his integrity and stature. In two consecutive days, Blair faced the double-whammy of an incredibly tight vote on university tuition fees, and, the next day, the findings of the Hutton report into the circumstances surrounding the death of British weapons expert Dr. David Kelly. In the run-up to the events, the British press characterized the approaching challenges as the “Week From Hell,” “High Noon,” and “The Abyss.” Blair knew the stakes. He told the Observer, “I know my job is on the line.” In the event he survived — intact, but probably weakened.
The vote on so-called ‘top-up’ tuition fees at British universities was hotly contested within Blair’s increasingly fractured Labor party. The higher education bill, pushed by the prime minister and his allies in parliament, narrowly defeated the biggest party rebellion in postwar Britain. Although Labor has a massive 161 vote majority in the 659-seat House of Commons, the bill passed by a mere five votes. Under the bill’s main features, undergraduate university fees will be almost tripled to a maximum of £3,000 ($6,000) a year starting in 2006, repayable once graduates start earning at least £15,000, ($30,000) a year. Opponents of the plan were worried that higher education in Britain could resemble the system in the United States, which many view as costly and inaccessible. Paul Mackney, head of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, delivered a rousing speech on Tuesday against Blair’s proposal saying: “We’ll become like the American Ivy League system, the same system that’s given us such intellectual giants as George W. Bush.”
Many political observers noted that without the help of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who himself is vying for the top-post, the prime minister would not have been able to turn around the vote. Brown and several other senior party members engaged in some last-minute lobbying and arm-twisting to secure the narrow majority. Even though in this instance Brown came to Blair’s rescue, the two have long had an intense rivalry.
After the vote, Reuters noted:
“Brown’s intervention laid bare once again the power struggle between the prime minister and his would-be successor.
The rivalry between the top two is legendary, but talk of Brown’s ambition has reached fever pitch as Blair’s popularity has faded in the wake of the Iraq war, which divided Labour and alienated many voters.
Brown had kept a low-profile as the higher education debate raged but he came out with all guns blazing on Monday, backing the policy in a high-profile speech and lobbying rebels.
With Blair under sustained attack, one theory swirling through the corridors of parliament was that Brown had intervened to salvage Labour unity — for his own sake.’Gordon doesn’t want the party damaged when he gets it,’ said one Labour MP.”
Even though he managed to secure a victory for the education bill, the result is far from resounding. The fact that so many Labor MPs voted against the bill, despite dire warnings they were in danger of bringing down their own prime minister, is remarkable to say the least. It is an indication of how much internal dissent Blair has managed to generate since taking office. While many rebellious Labor MP’s were motivated in their opposition by fears of an American-style market-based education system, the deeper reasons for the back-bench uprising was their unhappiness with Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq. This issue was brought to light just the next day, when Blair, having barely scraped over the first hurdle of the ‘top-up’ fees vote, had a potentially bigger challenge to face in the publication of the Hutton report.
Lord Hutton, a senior appeals court judge, was leading an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, who killed himself last summer. Kelly had found himself at the center of a huge controversy about claims the British government had made about Iraq’s weapon capabilities. The Ministry of Defense identified Dr. Kelly as the anonymous source used in a BBC report claiming that the government had deliberately “sexed up” pre-war intelligence dossiers on Iraq to advance its case for war.
Although the focus of the investigation was Dr. Kelly’s death, which was firmly established as suicide, it touched on matters (having to do with the alleged manipulation of intelligence before the Iraq war) that could have seriously harmed Blair. The report, though, clears Blair of any wrongdoing. The Hutton report states that the prime minister did not engage in a “dishonourable, duplicitous, underhand strategy” to leak the name of Dr. Kelly to the press. The report slammed the BBC for making “unfounded,” “grave,” and “false allegations of fact impugning the integrity of others,” and faulted the BBC’s management and board of governors for allowing the story by reporter Andrew Gilligan to air. The report calls the BBC‘s journalistic practices “defective” and declared that the board of governors had failed in its duty to act as an independent regulator. As a consequence the board’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned from his post.
Tony Blair appeared relieved and demanded an apology from the BBC. “The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie,” Blair told the House of Commons. “I simply ask that those that made it and those who have repeated it over all these months, now withdraw it, fully, openly and clearly.”
The Hutton report does, however, say, vaguely, that the desire of the prime minister to have a strong dossier may have “subconsciously influenced” the Joint Intelligence Committee to produce a strongly worded document. So while Hutton clears Blair of the specific charges brought forward in the contested BBC report, it implies that government officials were pushing for a certain version to suit their purposes.
Although the rebellion brought Blair to the brink, it’s unlikely to make him soften his stance toward the left-leaning back-benchers who hate his centrism. It is an open question how long he can lead a party that’s so ambivalent about him.
On which note, The Australian quotes an organizer of the education bill rebellion, Austin Mitchell, who ended up voting with Blair:
“Frustrated by Blair’s ‘back me or sack me’ gambles, Mitchell said Blair ‘can’t keep pulling this stunt’.
‘You can’t just keep jumping off cliffs saying ‘Catch me!’ because eventually people will just stand there with their hands in their pockets. I’m just about there now.'”