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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Blair pushes domestic agenda
Tony Blair at Prime Minister's question time
Tony Blair has weathered a difficult summer
Tony Blair has moved to re-focus his party on domestic issues after a summer of turbulence over Iraq and the Hutton inquiry.

With his government facing possible defeats over a range of issues, including university top-up fees, the prime minister used a visit to a city academy to underline public reform on Thursday.

The prime minister also held a long Cabinet meeting to prepare for the Labour party conference which begins on 28 September.

At the meeting - the first special Cabinet meeting since July - Mr Blair told his ministers there would be no retreat from public service reform.

He won the enthusiastic backing of fellow ministers at the meeting to discuss Labour's "fairness and reform agenda".

A Labour Party spokesman said: "Members of the Cabinet spoke up for the need for the reform programme to continue."

BBC political correspondent Paul Wilenius says the prime minister wants to send a strong signal that he is determined to put the difficult summer behind him, and move on to domestic policy.

The government will have a battle royal on their hands if they do not listen.
Ian Gibson
Norwich North MP
Mr Blair's attendance at the opening of new city academy in south-east London, with Education Secretary Charles Clarke, was seen as an attempt to underline his commitment to domestic issues.

The Bexley Business Academy in Thamesmead was established to fight under-achievement in inner city areas and is partly funded by private sector sponsorship.

It has produced increased GCSE pass-rates in what was a previously poor-performing urban areas.

"This is reform for a purpose, making Britain a fundamentally better and fairer society, " Mr Blair said during his visit.

"The bigger the challenge to achieve social justice, the bolder the reforms needed to reach it - that is our guiding principle."

'Battle royal'

But other education issues threaten to divide the Labour party, with 25 MPs warning of a "battle royal" ahead regarding university top-up fees.

The MPs met in Westminster on Wednesday night to plot a rebellion against the proposals when they come to vote in the Commons, unless major changes are made.

Norwich North MP Ian Gibson, who chaired the meeting, said: "The government will have a battle royal on their hands if they do not listen.

"We want Tony Blair to listen, we want him to see that it is a stupid policy. This is not just what MPs think but what the wider public thinks.

Talking to the BBC's Today programme, higher education minister Alan Johnson defended the government's plans.

'No negotiation'

He said that giving universities the power to vary fees for courses would mean some courses could be provided for free. The changes would mean up-front fees would be replaced by long-term repayment by graduates, he added.

"Variability is not up for negotiation. This is all about investment and expansion.

"The important issue is to have this debate and get our point across. There are various options there and we think we've struck the right balance"

At the weekly prime minister's questions on Wednesday, Mr Blair insisted that the "vast majority" of MPs would back the government in its plans for funding university education.

But earlier, three out of six questions during a 15-minute appearance by the prime minister in front of the Parliamentary Labour Party came from opponents of tuition fees.

Mr Blair insisted then there was no "cost-free option" although he acknowledged there was a debate in the party about the issue.




SEE ALSO:
Prime Minister's Questions
17 Sep 03  |  Politics
Blair under fire on euro and Iraq
17 Sep 03  |  Politics
Queen's Speech date set
17 Sep 03  |  Politics
Minister's tough message on fees
10 Sep 03  |  Education
Clarke defends higher tuition fees
02 Sep 03  |  Education



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