A day of lectures, drama and arm-twisting

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was involved in a heated altercation with one of his own MPs as tempers flared on a day of high drama and passion at the House of Commons over his Education Bill.

Members of the public were astonished to see Mr Blair being given a finger-wagging lecture by a female Labour MP in the atrium of Portcullis House on his way back to Downing Street after Prime Minister's Questions.

With Mr Blair's authority on the line, there was arm-twisting, heavy whipping, and promises of more concessions. Mr Blair won the vote on the Bill but was scarred by the result, which some Labour MPs were saying will ensure his end before serving a full term.

One cabinet minister predicted Mr Blair will go in May next year, after serving 10 years in office.

Labour rebels shouted "Tory Bill" in the packed chamber of the Commons when the result was read out. Mr Blair had needed the support of the Tories to get the Bill through its second reading, after 52 Labour MPs voted against the Government. Some Labour MPs pointed to the bust of Ramsay MacDonald - the Labour prime minister hated for forming a coalition with the Tories - in the members' lobby, and said: "Ramsay McBlair".

The result could have been worse for Mr Blair, but some left-wingers decided to abstain rather than vote against the Government. A persistent critic of Mr Blair, Bob Marshall Andrews refused to listen to urgent pleadings by another leftwinger, Alan Simpson, as they stood in the members' lobby minutes before the vote, and abstained.

A government whip wiped his brow, saying: "I have the bruises. It's been a heavy day."

Cabinet ministers, including Gordon Brown, saw potential rebels through the day, to urge them to support the Government. Brownites were keen to be seen to back the Government. One of the Chancellor's allies, who voted for the Bill, said: "I can't say that this has been well handled. But there are some who are voting to get rid of Blair."

Mr Blair went through the crowded division lobby, but did not appear on the front bench when the vote was read out to avoid embarrassment if the second vote had gone against him.

The chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, was praised for the effort she put in to secure victory on the second procedural vote by just 10 votes. A tea drinker, she did not join those who cracked open bottles of wine to celebrate, but she looked relieved after the second vote.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, switched his vote and led the Tories to vote against the Government on a motion which would have delayed the passage of the Bill for months. He found Frank Dobson alongside him in the lobby. The former Labour health secretary reminded Mr Cameron that he had said he would not vote with Labour "dinosaurs", which appeared to stretch Mr Cameron's sense of humour.

"It shows that Cameron has made the wrong decision again," said Ms Armstrong. "It is not a collapse of discipline. It is not a collapse of the Labour Party. Of course, the Labour Party has always felt passionately about education, but I am very pleased that people who had concerns came back to us."

The nightmare now facing Mr Blair is that Mr Cameron could switch again, and vote against the Bill during its final stages in the Commons. Then he could lose the Bill, and more of his authority with it.

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