Blair faces his toughest week as prime minister

Prime Minister Tony Blair faces the most hazardous week of his nearly seven-year tenure, as two of the most controversial issues of his premiership come to a head within 24 hours of each other.

On the domestic front, Blair is confronted with an unprecedented parliamentary revolt, as dozens of his own MPs prepare to scuttle his plans to improve universities by tripling student fees. Defeat over the issue would probably trigger a vote of confidence in the prime minister.

Less than a day later, Blair will find out whether he has been personally rebuked by an inquiry into the death of a government scientist who killed himself last year amid a furor over the justification for the Iraq war. The judge investigating the case, Lord Hutton, is likely to criticize several prominent officials for the way they handled the affair involving David Kelly, former UN weapons inspector and adviser to the Bristish government. Mr. Kelly committed suicide after getting caught up in a poisonous row over whether the government exaggerated the case for war.

Both issues are too close to call. Some commentators have speculated that a double reversal could prove politically fatal for Blair. Polls are already showing that the public expects him to resign if the Hutton report demonstrates that he lied at any stage in the process.

One recent poll (for Channel 4 television) found that 57 percent of people thought Blair should step down if his honesty is called into question. Another poll (for the Guardian newspaper) found that 60 percent were opposed to his flagship universities policy. And a third (for The Daily Telegraph) showed that support for Blair has been whittled away by the controversies, allowing the opposition Conservatives to edge into their largest lead over Labour in more than a decade (40 percent versus 35 percent).

"These are two very serious challenges to his authority," says David Mepham of the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank in London. "The tuition-fees vote is still on a knife edge, and the expectation is that if he loses it, there will be a vote of confidence."

Matters were not helped by the resignation comments of David Kay, the chief US weapons hunter in Iraq, who remarked Friday that he didn't believe large-scale weapons programs existed in the country. Like President Bush, Blair had used the weapons threat as one of the rationales for taking Britain to war last year, and still insists that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed a danger, even though no evidence of them has been discovered in Iraq. "The fact that the prime minister has repeated what nobody in the world now believes suggests his problems have not gone away," says Patrick Dunleavy, professor of government at the London School of Economics.

It was the insistence on the WMD threat last year that indirectly led to Kelly's death. A BBC reporter who had spoken to Kelly accused the government of exaggerating the threat to justify the war. Kelly was then exposed as the source of the claim. He committed suicide days later. Lord Hutton is expected to say who exposed Kelly, and whether they were right to do so. Blair has denied involvement, even though he chaired meetings at which the Kelly problem was discussed.

Analysts say some of Blair's staff and some BBC executives will not escape censure. But Blair himself may be given the benefit of the doubt. "It's very rare that English high court judges say anything critical about prime ministers," says Mr. Dunleavy. "But it could incriminate someone in his staff, and there could be a confidence vote next week on it."

The universities row could trigger even more immediate drama. Blair wants to permit steep hikes in tuition fees to bring more money into Britain's underfunded state-run universities, essentially privatizing them. The goal is to help British universities remain competitive with well-funded top US colleges.

But critics point to the two-tier US system and say it will create a small group of wealthy elite colleges and a morass of underfinanced mediocre ones. Students meanwhile will run up debts of as much as $100,000 paying for their studies - a prohibitively heavy burden for young people entering the workplace, they argue.

"This is an attempt to further marketize the process and to drive it further down the line towards a two-tier system," says Ian Gibson, a Labour MP planning to vote against Blair's reform. "Many people here don't want that."

He adds that Tuesday night's vote will be neck and neck. If 80 Labour MPs vote with the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrats against Blair, he will suffer an indignity he has not endured before: A policy he personally championed will be sunk. A vote of confidence would probably follow.

"It will be made into an issue of the prime minister resigning," says Mr. Gibson. But he added: "That's not our intention at all. If there was a vote of confidence afterwards, I would vote for the prime minister. But the policy would be in tatters."

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