and JOHN RENTOUL
Harriet Harman will meet her Labour critics head-on this morning after Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday ordered his party to "close ranks" and end deep divisions over her decision to send her 11-year-old son to a grammar school.
Ms Harman yesterday took the unexpected decision to attend the regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party for what promises to be a showdown with angry Labour MPs. It will be the first formal opportunity backbenchers have had to voice their fury.
As the Labour leadership fought to contain the political fall-out, Mr Blair let it be known to colleagues that the "clamour" and "squalid hounding" of Ms Harman by the Tories must be faced down.
Dismay in the senior ranks of the party over Ms Harman's decision appeared last night to be underlined by a curt statement from John Prescott, deputy leader of the Labour Party.
Mr Prescott, whose aides strongly denied he had a row with the Labour leader over the issue, declared: "Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party has made clear what the position is and I have nothing to add."
Earlier he 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 famous slogan about crime, and declared: "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 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."
Mr Blair, facing the stiffest test of his authority since he became leader in 1994, has made it clear the party must show its "mettle under fire".
With new public calls for her resignation from at least two more Labour MPs, many Labour MPs, including some in the shadow cabinet, appeared to believe she should have resigned before announcing her decision on her son's school.
Ms Harman's appearance at the PLP meeting this morning will astonish many of her critics. Roy Hattersley, the former deputy Labour leader who criticised Mr Blair's decision to send his son to the London Oratory, an opted-out school, is likely to speak at the meeting.
Several Labour MPs said it was "very unlikely" Ms Harman would be re- elected to the shadow cabinet in November.
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