Blair's appeal defuses revolt; Harman apologises for political damage and distress

Click to follow
The Independent Online


Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday stifled a destablising campaign to unseat his shadow Secretary of State for Health, Harriet Harman, with a passionate call on his party to recover the unity needed to defeat the Tories.

Mr Blair, faced with a potentially catastrophic revolt over Ms Harman's controversial decision to send her 11-year-old son to a grammar school, reimposed his will on the party with a warning that he would not hand the Conservatives "the scalp" they were seeking.

Mr Blair's decisive victory at a highly-charged 70-minute meeting of MPs - which exposed deep divisions in the party - came after Ms Harman apologised for the political damage and "distress" inflicted by the row but stood firm on her right to have made the choice. But Ms Harman's supporters were astounded when Bernie Grant, the left-wing MP for Tottenham, made a powerful speech backing Ms Harman during which he excoriated the "appalling" standard of comprehensive schooling in inner-city London.

Mr Blair at one point described the Tories as "bastards" and declared: "I'm not going to allow the Tories the pleasure of crucifying any member of my Shadow Cabinet ... you must stand firm".

Ms Harman went on to tough out Tory attempts to derail her with a sure- footed performance, leading a Commons health debate flanked by Mr Blair and prominent members of the Shadow Cabinet - including John Prescott, the party's deputy leader. Mr Prescott, like several other of his colleagues, is known to have been privately angered by Ms Harman's decision.

Mr Prescott, who throughout the episode has conspicuously failed to back Ms Harman personally, nevertheless sought yesterday to draw a line under the episode in his speech to the PLP meeting.

He urged the party to unite behind Mr Blair's leadership and focus their energy on two forthcoming by-elections, in Hemsworth and Staffordshire South East.

But while Mr Blair unequivocally reasserted his party's commitment to non-selective comprehensive education, Cabinet ministers emerged from a meeting on political strategy determined to capitalise, between now and the general election, on the charges of "hypocrisy" provoked by Ms Harman's choice of a selective school.

Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party's chairman, said Mr Blair could not sack Ms Harman because he was using her as a "human shield" as he himself had sent his older son to a comprehensive which selected by interview.

But despite the widespread anger within Labour ranks over Ms Harman's decision, correspondence flowing into the party suggested that while there was deep unrest among activists, there was much more support for Ms Harman among the electorate at large.

Mr Blair - in a speech described even by stern Shadow Cabinet critics of Ms Harman as "electric"- told the meeting: "These decisions are bound to cause anguish. The issue is no longer about Harriet and her child, but how we handle ourselves in this difficult period. Let me make it clear what this is now about. The Tories are trying to turn the education of an 11-year-old boy into a party political football. They want a scalp as their prize."

Before he spoke Ms Harman had declared in an emotional speech: "I know how difficult it has been for David Blunkett [the shadow Secretary of State for Education]. I deeply regret that any decision I have taken has given any succour to the Tories and any opportunity for them to attack the Labour Party. I apologise to colleagues for the diversion."

Ms Harman went on: "I understand the strength of feeling and deeply regret the distress that has been caused." She insisted she was "opposed" to selection, but said: "I was faced with a difficult choice and each of us has to solve the problems faced by providing good schooling for our children in our own way. I would prefer the school that I had sent my child to not to be selective."

Mr Grant began a powerful and totally unexpected speech with the words: "I support Harriet Harman 100 per cent." His three children had gone to a comprehensive in the Tottenham area and he now regretted it. This was a "personal decision by Harriet and Jack and as such none of our business". He had remained silent about many things in the Labour Party over the last eight years but he now had to speak out.

Deriding self-proclaimed "friends" of Ms Harman who had criticised her, he said: "A friend is someone who lends you money; a comrade is someone who helps you when you are in deep trouble."

Alice Mahon said the party had been deeply damaged and there were now deep divisions in Parliament and among Labour supporters in the country. If Ms Harman was determined to send her child to St Olave's she should resign.

Gerald Kaufman said: "Do not give journalists another day of stories about a Labour split. Many of them want to see us permanently in opposition."

Roy Hattersley said: "We must solidify our commitment to comprehensive education. If at the end of this the vast majority of people know we are on their side then we can turn this issue to our advantage."

Glenda Jackson said the greatest damage that could come would be if Labour failed to be elected because in the face of difficulty "we had lost our nerve". She did not agree with Ms Harman's decision but she had every right to make it.

Inside Parliament, page 6

Prescott's trials, page 13

Labour's failure, page 15