Assuming that the top-up fees rebellion was ultimately put down (and pretty brutally put down, by the look of it) by forcing a wedge between the two distinct groups of rebels – those who want to see Blair gone and those who object only to the policy – this is obviously not a great result for Blair. It means, if the Government’s strategy was successful in pulling most of the ‘soft’ objectors back from the brink, that something like 50 Labour MPs would dearly like to see Blair replaced in Number 10 (total guess: assuming about two-thirds of the ultimate rebels are in the anti-Blair camp and one-third voted against on doggedly-held principle).
Still, few commentators have pointed out (it’s early, I suppose) that this rebellion, while epic in its implications, is not large numerically – both the Iraq and Foundation Hospitals votes produced more ‘no’ votes from the Labour benches. Set in its historic context it is also not a disaster. This Government, remember, has still to be defeated in a single significant parliamentary vote in seven years. Compare that with Callaghan, Wilson or earlier Labour Governments, all of whom would probably have regarded this gut-wrenching near-catastrophe as a pretty ordinary day’s work.
So, without wanting to over-simplify, Blair got the right result by isolating his opponents in the party and calling the bluff of the more principled objectors who couldn’t bring themselves to hand Howard a victory. That, if you ask me, is intelligent, ballsy (and successful) politics. Bravo.