Blair on the rack over Harman

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Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was last night facing his first full-scale internal party crisis since succeeding John Smith 19 months ago as he ordered his party to "close ranks" in defence of his beleaguered health spokesman, Harriet Harman.

Ms Harman will confront her seething Labour critics this morning after Mr Blair laid his authority on the line by unequivocally ordering his party to end the deep divisions over her decision to send her 11-year-old son to a grammar school.

As the Labour leadership fought to contain the crisis, deep dismay in the party's senior ranks over Ms Harman's decision appeared last night to be underlined by an ominously terse statement from John Prescott, the party's deputy leader.

Mr Prescott, whose aides were forced to deny categorically reports that he had a stand-up row with the Labour leader over the issue, said: "Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party has made clear what the position is and I have nothing to add."

Ms Harman yesterday took the unexpected decision to attend and defend herself at the regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party this morning for what promises to be a showdown with angry Labour MPs. It will be followed by a testing afternoon in which Ms Harman will face her Tory tormentors when she leads an Opposition health debate. Ms Harman will defend her decision at the PLP as a personal one which does not undermine Labour policy.

According to colleagues Mr Prescott's private fury over Ms Harman's decision had been compounded by the fact that he was not told officially that the news of it was breaking until it after it became public on Saturday. Mr Prescott was also facing claims that he had - albeit in a light-hearted , off-the-record aside which did not mention Ms Harman by name - used a four letter word and the term "hypocrite" in private discussion before a broadcast interview last weekend.

Earlier Mr Prescott had sat glowering beside Mr Blair when the party leader came under fire from John Major in Commons exchanges that delighted Tory backbenchers. In one taunt, the Prime Minister invoked the Labour leader's slogan about crime, and said: "You should not be so sensitive about your difficulties. I just want to be tough on hypocrisy and tough on the causes of hypocrisy."

Implicitly acknowledging the criticism over his backing for Ms Harman, Mr Blair thanked Mr Major for his "kind words of concern over pressure. The difference between me and you is that I won't buckle under it".

But Mr Blair has made it clear the party must show its "mettle under fire". He is said to believe that if the party retreats under its first real attack, it will show it is not up to the tough decisions ahead between now and the election.

Ken Livingstone, left-wing MP for Brent East, has led calls for Ms Harman to resign and compared Ms Harman's situation to that of David Mellor and other ministers initially defended by the Prime Minister and then dropped. "In the end they go, and it is better to do it quickly," he said. Mr Livingstone claimed last night it was the "overwhelming" view of the party that she should go.

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