Blair thrown off guard as Cameron backs Labour's education reforms

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was thrown on to the defensive over his education reforms by David Cameron, the new Tory leader, during their first clash at Prime Minister's Questions.

In a confident debut, Mr Cameron offered the Opposition's support for the Education Bill, saying that meant Mr Blair would not need to make concessions to those rebel Labour MPs threatening to scupper the measure.

The offer was double-edged, since it may make it harder for the Prime Minister to persuade the Labour sceptics to rally behind the Bill to set up "trust" schools with more freedom from local authority control.

Mr Blair wants to win the Commons' approval without relying on Tory votes - an outcome which would enrage Labour MPs and could hasten his departure from Downing Street. He may prefer to make concessions to his rebels rather than depending on Tory support.

To add to Mr Blair's discomfort, 30 Labour rebels announced plans to issue their alternative white paper next week. Alan Whitehead, a former minister, warned that the proposals would widen the divide between better-off and worse-off children. "There is very wide-spread concern among very many people that, for all the good intentions suggested for this particular way forward, the end result would actually be a potentially much worse outcome."

Labour opponents claim that up to 100 backbenchers may rebel against the Education Bill, which is due to be published next February. Blair aides insisted last night that there was "constructive engagement" between ministers and the critics during a "listening exercise" which was allaying the rebels' fears about the Bill.

Blair allies said the Tory leader could not now fail to support the measure. They claimed he was wrong to assert that a White Paper published in October would allow schools to set their own admissions policies. The document said self-governing schools could set "fair admissions" policies to suit local circumstances but added "as long as it is compatible with the admissions code". Ministers claim the code will prevent a return to selection by academic ability but some Labour MPs are not convinced.

Tory MPs were delighted by Mr Cameron's strong performance in the Commons, which commentators saw as giving him a points victory over his more experienced opponent.

The new Tory leader, who has called for an end to "Punch and Judy politics", adopted a more conciliatory style - offering to build a consensus with Labour on education and climate change. He rebuked Hilary Armstrong, the Government Chief Whip, for "shouting like a child" when she interrupted his opening remarks.

Mr Cameron also appeared to discomfort Mr Blair when he said the Prime Minister's approach was "stuck in the past" and reminded him that he was once seen as "the future". Mr Blair forgot to congratulate Mr Cameron on his victory in the Tory leadership election and apologised for jabbing his finger at Mr Cameron because of the "new consensus". But he seemed sceptical about how long the new mood would last and challenged the new Opposition leader to back the extra funding pumped into education and other public services - which will be a key line of attack on his new opponent.

The Prime Minister told Mr Cameron: "I'm very happy to have this new consensus with you and I'm delighted today you've said the Conservative party will vote for these education reforms. But it has to be on the basis, I'm afraid, of agreeing the investment also."

Mr Blair also highlighted "a disagreement" on admissions policy. In an attempt to reassure backbench critics, he told Mr Cameron: "As I understand it your position is to say that all schools should be free to set their own admissions procedures. I'm afraid I believe the present admissions code should remain in place."

The Tory leader, mocking Mr Blair's statement that Labour was best when at its boldest, told him: "With our support you know there is no danger of losing these education reforms in a parliamentary vote, so you can afford to be as bold as you want to be. That's when you are at your best - or so I'm told!"

Later during the exchanges, the Prime Minister insisted that he was still committed to a system of "binding targets" on global warming to replace the Kyoto protocol. He challenged Mr Cameron to prove his green credentials by backing Labour's proposals aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The Prime Minister told the Tory leader: "It is important not merely that we say how much we care about climate change but that we take the action necessary. It will be no use you saying you support this unless you also support the climate-change levy and the renewables obligation and the extra investment we have put into energy efficiency. If you are prepared to have a consensus on that basis I welcome it."

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