Tony Blair has raised the stakes in his battle with rebel Labour MPs over education, warning of dire consequences for the party if his "critical" reform plans are defeated.
The Prime Minister admitted that he was on a "high wire act" as he struggled to head off a humiliating defeat on the Schools Bill due to be published next month. But he offered no firm concessions to his critics and disowned remarks by his deputy John Prescott, who said last month: "If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the danger is everyone wants to go there.''
Mr Blair told a Downing Street press conference it was an "extraordinary" argument that schools which got better created a problem by encouraging more parents to apply for places. He said: "I get really concerned when I hear people talk about how local schools develop, and this idea that if you get a really good school, it creams off the best pupils. The answer is to find out why the other schools aren't so good and lift the standards."
The Prime Minister regarded the crunch vote on education as "even more fundamental to the Government" than the anti-terror laws on which he was defeated last autumn. He acknowledged that a "significant number" of Labour MPs were against him.
He answered critics of his proposals for independent trust schools by pointing to the exam results at specialist schools, where 46 per cent of pupils attained five good GCSEs, compared with 36 per cent at traditional comprehensives.
In remarks that will infuriate his critics, Mr Blair welcomed Tory backing for the Bill. But he was not "laying any bets" on David Cameron delivering his promise of support.
An uncompromising Mr Blair dismissed his critics' fears over a return to selection in schools as a "red herring". He turned down the idea of the code on admissions being made statutory on the ground that it was already legally binding and he rejected the possibility of a ban on interviews.
Despite his tough stance, allies believe Mr Blair will be forced to make concessions to head off the revolt threatened by more than 100 Labour backbenchers. The vehicle for his retreat may be provided by the Commons Education Select Committee, which met last night to finalise a report on the Government's plans due to be published on Thursday. The meeting broke up after three hours without agreement after Tories demanded the report endorse the Blair blueprint. Some Labour members are holding out for a more critical report attacking the trust school proposals.
Mr Blair's opponents, who warn that his plans could create a "two-tier" system, found support in a study from the Sutton Trust charity, chaired by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl. It found that top comprehensives with control over admissions were already excluding pupils from poorer backgrounds.
Bush praises 'indpendent PM'
George Bush mounted a robust defence of Tony Blair, describing him as an independent thinker who did not simply do America's bidding. "I have heard the criticism and it's just simply not the case," the US President said at Kansas State University.
"I admire him a lot. He's an independent thinker... I'm sure that his relationship with me causes him problems at home."Reuse content