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Blair narrowly wins crucial vote

"This is not an easy situation for Tony (Blair)," his deputy said.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The British government has narrowly won a crucial parliamentary vote with a majority of five on its plan to let universities charge higher tuition fees.

Prime Minister Tony Blair had faced a rebellion from a large number of members of parliament from his own Labour Party that had threatened to overturn his overwhelming majority of 161.

Victory for Tony Blair and his Cabinet, by 316 votes to 311, on Tuesday evening followed a day of drama that started when rebel leader, former minister Nick Brown, switched allegiance to the government.

But despite the relief for the prime minister and his Education Secretary Charles Clarke, they still have a tough battle getting the Higher Education Bill -- the centerpiece of Blair's legislative program -- passed in Parliament.

The opposition Conservative education spokesman Tim Yeo pointed out that the vote had only been carried with the help of MPs from Scotland, where the new measures have no effect.

"That is an utter humiliation for the government," said Yeo.

Blair, having suffered the biggest rebellion of his premiership to date, must now survive the second of this week's major events.

The vote came on the eve of the publication of the Hutton inquiry report into the death of weapons expert David Kelly. The scientist was found dead days after he was exposed as the source for a BBC story that Blair's office "sexed up" the dossier making the case for war against Iraq.

Nick Brown:
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Blair also has come under pressure over the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, following the recent assertion by former U.S. chief inspector David Kay that Iraq probably never had WMD.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the scale of Tuesday revolt was a humiliation for Blair, but added that "it will at least put him in a better mood for tackling the Hutton report."

Oakley said the vote was likely to result in a change in style by Blair's government. "One of the problems of this bill was that it didn't go through the Labour Party's normal policy procedures and party conference.

"It was dumped on his MPs unexpectedly at a late stage because Blair was convinced of the need for reform.

"Many MPs resented this and feel that he doesn't listen enough -- a consequence of his large majority perhaps? But now they'll expect him to be a listening prime minister from now on."

Other political analysts agreed the narrowness of the victory was bound to dent Blair's authority.

"Clearly, Blair's authority in the party, although not smashed, has shown its limits," Professor John Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde, told Reuters.

"They have had to pull out all the stops just to scrape through," he said. "The days when Tony Blair can just announce polices and get them through is over."

The bill means universities can charge students up to 3,000 ($5,500) a year, to be paid after they leave school and start earning.

Colleges currently charge a flat-rate fee about half that figure which is paid upfront. The government says the increase would provide an extra 1 billion a year for higher education.

Clarke has also promised scholarships for poorer students and a system to help people from working class backgrounds to enter higher education.

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