Allies tell PM to compromise on school reform

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The Independent Online

Close allies of Tony Blair are urging him to back down over key elements of his education reforms to avoid a humiliating Commons vote that could end his premiership.

Some ministers and MPs close to the Prime Minister are worried that his determination to secure his schools shake-up before he stands down could lead him to adopt a reckless approach to the schools Bill, which will be published next month.

They are urging him not to repeat the brinkmanship which led to his Commons defeat last November over plans to allow suspected terrorists to be detained for up to 90 days without charge, after which he declared: "Sometimes it's better to lose doing the right thing than to win doing the wrong thing."

One Blair ally said: "Tony has got to move this time. There is a trust problem. He does not want selection in schools but he needs to reassure our MPs about that."

David Blunkett, the former cabinet minister and a Blair ally, provoked a new flurry of speculation about Mr Blair's future yesterday by predicting he would be succeeded by Gordon Brown in one or two years - a shorter timescale than the full term envisaged by the Prime Minister.

Mr Blunkett told the BBC's Sunday AM programme that he sensed "a new understanding" between Mr Blair and Mr Brown about the handover. "So good on them. And whether it is a year or two years, it actually will be a sensible process of combining the talents that we have," he said.

Mr Blunkett appealed for compromise from both sides in the battle between Mr Blair and the 100 Labour MPs who oppose the schools White Paper published last October, insisting there was "a real possibility" of a deal.

He urged Mr Blair to toughen the school admissions code to force schools to take it into account. But he also warned the rebel MPs that Labour was facing a "seminal moment".

Alan Milburn, a Blairite former cabinet minister, called for "give and take" from both sides and appealed to the Government to give ground over the admissions code and the role of local education authorities. He also warned the rebels they could fatally damage Labour's electoral prospects by defeating the reforms. "It's become a test of Labour's willingness to carry on as a reforming government," he said. "It [defeat] would be a huge self-inflicted wound that would have potentially fatal consequences not for Tony Blair personally, but for the Labour Party collectively."

Lord Hattersley, a former Labour deputy leader, warned Mr Blair not to rely on the votes of Tory MPs to secure the reforms. He told BBC Radio 4: "He can't survive if he only carries the White Paper and the Bill that follows on Conservative votes. He can survive if he makes the adjustments which allow Labour rebels, people who don't want to be against the leadership, will much prefer to vote with the Government, to vote for the Bill with good conscience."

Meanwhile, Mr Blunkett said he would be moving "within a matter of weeks" out of the grace-and-favour London house provided by the Government after finding a new home, three months after resigning from the Cabinet for the second time.