As the Prime Minister and his people seek to pick off the Labour rebels, one group remains firmly beyond their reach. These are the MPs who feel, as one of them put it, like battered wives. No amount of flowers or chocolates, no amount of entreaties to trust Tony Blair "just one more time" will make up for the bruises and the broken promises. Ministers are beginning to express confidence that they might yet scrape through in the vote. But they fear that the politics of top-up fees was lost long ago in the march to war, and that they cannot go on like this much longer.
Those who have been striving for years for a more radical agenda in government see a paradox in the battles of the past few weeks. This time, they say, they have alighted finally on a genuinely redistributive policy. But because of everything that has preceded it, a large number of rebels are refusing even to listen.
Others have listened and are not budging. The battle over the coming fortnight is being fought over the third category: those rebels with principled objections, notably over the right of universities to vary their charges. They might still be persuaded on the policy, but not over the personal fortunes of the Prime Minister.
The message from ministers is that the numbers are moving steadily in their direction. The arithmetic is tight. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has
promised to hold a new round of meetings
with the Parliamentary Labour Party and to publish a new paper explaining the financial implications for students.
Those close to Blair accept that a narrow victory in the vote on 27 January will not be enough to re-establish his authority. "What is the point of a Get Out of Jail Free card," asks one, "if he has nowhere to go when he's out?"
Rather than picking individual battles such as over foundation hospitals and tuition fees, the more important task, Blair's people believe, is to launch a new phase in the debate on public services ahead of the next general election. Namely, how can increased provision of education and health be funded in a political environment that precludes further increases in general taxation? The framing of that question presupposes a continued freeze on the basic and top rates of income tax, for the third election campaign in a row. Such an assumption would send Blair into another battle with many in his party. But those are the parameters in which the thinking is being developed.
The ugly term is "co-payment". It has already been denounced by several members of the cabinet and would be deeply unpopular among swathes of activists, but it is seen as vital for any expansion of public services, such as increasing nursery places, extending school hours for extra-curricular activities, expanding university access and, perhaps, certain areas of healthcare.
Universal provision, on the basis of need and not on the ability to pay, would be preserved for "core" services. Core is a flexible term and would include whatever ministers want it to include at any given point. This will all be framed in the "true Labour" language of "fairness".
Blair presaged his new line of thinking during Prime Minister's Questions on 14 January. Lacing his arguments with his characteristically easy evangelism, he insisted that not only were top-up fees more "fair" than other methods of funding, but that even if he had extra billions at his disposal he would devote it to other areas, such as under-five provision or care for the elderly.
He continued in the same vein in a speech later in the day, putting top-up fees in the context of "social justice and extending opportunities not to a few, but to all". He went on: "They do not penalise the ordinary taxpayer. Instead, they represent a fair way of meeting the future challenge of getting more of our young people better educated than ever before."
Ranged against him is the increasingly dangerous figure of Michael Howard, pressing home the message that the government should "get out of people's lives" and that the injection of cash into the NHS and into education is not paying dividends. Blair is frightened of the Conservatives' positioning. He, too, has apparently concluded that the increase in National Insurance payments to help fund the huge injection of cash into the NHS has stretched the public's tolerance of direct taxation to its limits. He has convinced himself that any increase in the top rate, even for the super-rich, even for those earning more than £100,000, is somehow "unfair". The logic of that is lost on most of those around him. In promising not to "penalise" taxpayers, he has tied himself more firmly than ever to the value judgements of the right. This is where he is, and for as long as he remains in office, that is the ground he is determined to occupy.