Brown in bid to get back on front foot

PM to unveil new powers for parents as Labour rushes to condemn Blears

Gordon Brown will launch a fightback today as he tries to silence his Labour critics by showing that his Government has not run out of steam and fresh policy ideas.

In a speech in London, the Prime Minister will announce that parents will get new powers to trigger local authority inspections of under-performing schools, which could be closed or merged. Promising more investment and reform in education as part of Labour's "politics of opportunity and growth", he will accuse David Cameron of the "politics of austerity and defeatism".

Before the lunchtime speech, Mr Brown will chair what could be a tense session of the Cabinet. Other ministers are furious with Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, who accused the Government of a "lamentable" failure to communicate in a newspaper article and mocked the Prime Minister's YouTube video on MPs' expenses.

Although Ms Blears later pledged her full support, there is speculation among ministers she may be dropped from the Cabinet in a reshuffle after next month's European and local elections, when Labour is expected to suffer big losses. "We can't expect the Parliamentary Labour Party [PLP] to be united and disciplined unless that starts at the top," one cabinet minister said yesterday. "It sends a bad signal to the PLP if someone can be as ham-fisted and lacking in judgement as this and just continues with impunity."

Geraldine Smith, a Labour backbencher, said: "Hazel Blears is attacking herself. She can't have it both ways." She said Ms Blears could not be bound by cabinet collective responsibility during the week and become a backbencher at weekends so she could criticise the Government.

Amid feverish speculation about Mr Brown's future, deputy leader Harriet Harman yesterday denied a report that she would be a candidate to succeed him if he is forced out before the next general election. She said this was "simply not true" and under "no circumstances" would she be a candidate. She told BBC Radio 4: "I don't want to be prime minister and I don't want to be leader of the party."

Ms Harman said she intended to keep the promise she made to Labour members at the time of her 2007 election as deputy leader – that she would stand behind Mr Brown. "My ambition is to remain his loyal and supportive deputy," she added.

While Mr Cameron launches the Tories' local election campaign in the North-east today, Mr Brown will offer more powers for parents and headteachers while expressing doubts about Tory plans to allow parents to set up new schools.

The Prime Minister will say: "Neither a free market, voucher-style reform of education, where some are helped while others are left to fall behind, nor top-down centralised government control, can provide the innovation and leadership needed to take the next steps on the road to world-class schools for our children."

Although parents could run schools if they wished to, he will argue that the vast majority of them do not want this burden. "They don't want to be expected to do it themselves. They want world-class teachers and school providers to do it for them," he will say.

At present, parents can request an inspection by Ofsted, but the new powers will force education authorities to intervene at an earlier stage – for example, if schools do badly in surveys of parents or if they are the first choice of only a small number of pupils.

Mr Brown will say: "Action could mean either federation of underperforming schools with excellent schools, expansion of good schools and in some cases entirely new schools."

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