The Tory Opposition will back the Education Bill to ensure it secures a second reading by a big majority, despite a revolt by about 50 Labour backbenchers. But in a second vote, the Tories will join forces with Labour rebels to demand more time for debate.
The programme motion tabled by the Government, which sets a limit for detailed debate during the Bill's later stages, is normally passed without controversy. But tonight ministers face a symbolic defeat that could force them either to grant more time or let the debate on the Bill drag on for months.
A senior Tory source said: "It will remind everyone that Tony Blair needs our support to get the measure through."
Labour critics of the measure will vote against the programme motion in the hope of wringing more concessions from ministers over the Bill's content in return for supporting a guillotine motion to cut short debate and push the reforms through.
Ministers accused the Tories of "playing politics" with measures that they admitted would improve the education system. "David Cameron is resorting to Punch and Judy politics and lining up with Labour dinosaurs," said one. "It's another flip-flop - either he wants the Bill or he doesn't."
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, fired off a letter last night to her Tory shadow, David Willetts, saying the Opposition's plan to reject the programme motion made "a mockery" of their repeated pledges to support the Bill. She claimed the Tories had imposed a two-line rather than a three-line whip tonight because some of their MPs opposed David Cameron's strategy of backing the measure.
Ministers hope the Tories' decision to "play games" over the Bill's passage will drive some wavering Labour MPs back into the Government's fold. But organisers of the rebellion predicted that at least 47 Labour MPs would vote against the Bill in the second reading vote and up to another 20 would abstain - enough to leave Mr Blair dependent on the Tory Opposition.
Mr Blair held one-to-one meetings with rebels in a final attempt to persuade them to back the Bill. According to Labour opponents, he ruled out further concessions in case the Tories then withdrew their support for the measure on the grounds that the reforms had been watered down - a move that could kill off the Bill.
One rebel organiser said: "A Labour prime minister is no more concerned about keeping the Tories on board than securing the support of his own MPs. His problem is one of his own making. He should have taken his backbenchers with him from the start." Labour MPs said that Mr Blair's authority as Prime Minister would be dented if he needed the votes of Tory MPs to win the second reading vote.
His critics claimed that grassroots Labour members were alarmed by the proposal to set up independent "trust" schools with more freedom from local authorities.
They cited a YouGov survey showing that 11 per cent of party members said the Bill could prompt them to play a less active role in the party, while 14 per cent could leave the party.
- More about:
- Conservative Party