Tony Blair faced the first resignation from his government since the general election when Martin Salter, a member of his education team, quit in protest over the handling of planned school reforms.
The walk-out adds to the risk that the Prime Minister will need Tory support to get his Education Bill through the Commons in the new year. David Cameron the Tory leadership contender, has offered support - but it would be a severe humiliation for Mr Blair to have to rely on Tory votes to push through flagship reforms.
Mr Salter, who was parliamentary private secretary to the schools minister, Jacqui Smith, has been an outspoken critic of the way government whips have dealt with potential opponents of the reforms, accusing them of running meetings with MPs "as if it is some sort of Nuremberg rally". He has also said that Mr Blair should leave office soon, rather than waiting until the next election.
Dozens of Labour MPs have been called in for individual talks with the whips, who are trying desperately to minimise the revolt over the proposed school reforms. The Education Bill has not yet been written, but the government White Paper on which it will be based has provoked widespread opposition on the Labour side.
MPs fear that its central proposal to give schools control over their own intake will widen the gap between the best and worst state schools, and undercut the power of local councils.
Yesterday, a Commons committee was warned that the proposals will in effect stop councils from opening any new neighbourhood comprehensives. A presumption underlying the reforms is that all new schools will either be "trust" schools - independent of local authorities and with private partners - or academies, the privately sponsored state schools set up to replace struggling inner-city schools.
Local government leaders, giving evidence to the Commons education committee, warned that the proposals would be a recipe for bringing back more selection by ability and social status. Another outcome could be that a swathe of inner-city schools would "wither on the vine" because they would be forced to take more than their share of difficult children. They would ultimately close because fewer parents would choose them for their children.
James Kempton, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association committee, called for a statutory code that would prevent schools from introducing selection "by ability and by social group".
Christine Davies, director of children's services in Telford and the Wrekin, added: "The consequences [of not having a binding code] is that some schools will opt not to have those children who present the greatest challenge. It will exclude children who have special educational needs, behaviour difficulties and children who are in the looked- after system.
"Some schools will be forced to take a disproportionate number of these young people - and that will be unfair to those schools because of the challenges they face, and it will be profoundly unfair to those children with the greatest need."Reuse content