Powerful lobby that forced Johnson to think again

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As political capitulations go it was about as humiliating as any politician can remember.

Lord Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, described the rethink on forcing faith schools to accept pupils from other religious or non-religious backgrounds "as the fastest U-turn in British political history". Lord Baker was in no doubt that it was the Catholic Church's campaign against the proposal which had persuaded the Cabinet to change its mind.

While other faith groups had played their part in raising the political temperature, final victory was only secured after a meeting between the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, and the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Archbishop Nichols is credited as the architect of a national campaign aimed at mobilising the Catholic lobby in England and Wales. Part of the campaign included the open threat that Labour risked alienating two million voters.

Letters were written to all 2,000 Catholic headteachers in the country urging them to lobby their MPs to oppose the plans. They in turn sent letters to parents urging them to join the campaign.

Archbishop Nichols' campaign was supported by the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet, which portrayed the school quotas as part of a co-ordinated attack on the whole Church. It told its readers: "Such a bandwagon attracts those who despise religion in all its forms, and ultimately want to see religion driven from the public square."

The magazine also claimed that the 25 per cent quota could extend to all schools, not just new ones. Ultimately, said The Tablet, there is a group of individuals inside the Government which wanted to use quotas to "press for a secularist agenda". But what the Catholic Church did not make clear was that there was also a group of individuals within the Government which is prepared to fight the Catholic corner. Chief among them is the cabinet minister Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary and a member of the Catholic conservative movement Opus Dei. Catholics can also count on support from the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair. But since the debate opened up 10 days ago, Ms Kelly, and less significantly Mrs Blair, have only been conspicuous by their absence. How much influence then, supporters of the reform argue, has the Catholic lobby managed to exert inside Government?

Yesterday Mr Johnson claimed he had secured a good deal that would achieve the Government's aim of better multi-faith integration inside schools.

But if this deal implies concessions on both sides it was not clear yesterday what the Catholic Church had given up. Asked on BBC Radio 4 what he had brought to the negotiating table, Archbishop Nichols could manage just a vague reference to plans for wider access to new schools through consultation.

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