John Grogan is not a man you’d expect to find in the Commons’ lobbies voting against his government. Nor does he seem entirely comfortable being labelled a ‘rebel’. Yet in the drama surrounding the Top-Up Fees bill, his was a familiar face. Following an interview on BBC 2’s The Politics Show, he was “basically playing the role of duty rebel, going around the TV studios.” Under enormous government pressure on MPs, he explains how the rebels “were trying to keep the vote up, trying to maximize the number that held firm.” In the battle to win over faltering MPs, this unassuming Selby MP found himself cast into the role of rebel spokesman. “It was better for me to do it than an MP who rebels against the government at every opportunity,” he said.
That so many Labour MPs rebelled against the government is significant itself; if Tony Blair is to regain his authority, he must win back Labour MPs like Grogan. Long regarded as a government loyalist, he first defied Labour whips over the Iraq war, then led the opposition to top-up fees.
It’s not that the government were not paying close attention: he received three offers of dinner from Ministers on the night of the vote. “I’m sure they just wanted to talk about the FA Cup draw or something” he commented at the time. He describes a meeting about regional government with Labour Party Chairman Ian McCartney on the day of the vote: “I thought he might mention the vote, but he didn’t. At one point he checked that my pulse was OK. I just replied: ‘I think it will last through till tonight.’”
Like many Labour rebels, he opposed top-up fees because of the about turn in policy they represented: “our manifesto was pretty clear in saying we oppose top-up fees, so it’s a matter of trust.” While in favour of students “making some contribution to their higher education” he argues top-up fees are different: “the logic of the new system means the cap will be lifted. There are many families just above the threshold who will have to pay.”
The growing opposition to Blair has led many to suggest his days are numbered. Grogan concedes these are difficult times: “We’ve had it easy as a government for a long while. This is our first testing period.”
Along with 15 colleagues, he recently helped found a group called New Wave Labour to alter the party’s direction: “at some stage the phrase ‘New Labour’ will be a bit old hat really.” He admits there is divergence with government policy: “certainly in terms of the market we are divergent with the government. We’re asking how appropriate it is to have the market in our public services.”
Many see the group as reflecting the view that the New Labour project has run out of steam. But Grogan is still loyal to the leadership, admitting he owes his position to Tony Blair: “My constituency is a big, rural, traditionally Middle England constituency. It’s a Tory seat that will one day be Tory again. I wouldn’t have it had it not been for Blair.”
However, he won’t be keeping quiet on top-up fees. The Bill is in the committee stages and will be debated again in April. “There’s the possibility of further votes,” he says, “so it’s by no means over.”