Ruth Kelly may have jeopardised her seat at the next general election by her decision to send her son to a private school for special education needs.
The former education secretary has been accused of hypocrisy and is facing a backlash from some voters in Bolton where she has a wafer-thin majority and could face difficulty holding the seat at the next election.
Issues such as the Communities Secretary's decision to pay £15,000 a year for her son to go to a boarding school for special educational needs touch a nerve with many Labour voters and her constituency was yesterday refusing to comment and passing all calls to her special adviser in London. One aide said: "People are supportive across the board. She issued a statement and people are very sympathetic."
Ms Kelly, the MP for Bolton West, has been rumoured to be on the "chicken run" to the rock-solid Labour neighbouring seat of Bolton South East, where the sitting MP Brian Iddon has announced he is to retire.
Mr Iddon and David Crausby, the Labour MP for Bolton North east, made it clear they were against private schooling. Mr Crausby said: "I do not agree with the principle of private education. What we have got to strive for as a Labour Government is to ensure every child has a good state education. Politicians like me have a responsibility to ensure our children go through the state system and that is what I did with my two boys. It's important that Labour ministers apply party policy in the way they vote and act."
Mr Iddon said: "We want to make state schools as good if not better than public schools, so there will be no need for people to send their children to public schools."
Susan Williams, who has been chosen by the Tories to challenge Ms Kelly in Bolton West at the next election, attacked her decision as "grossly hypocritical".
Tony Blair appeared alongside Ms Kelly yesterday in Downing Street in a public show of support for his under-fire cabinet minister. Co-chairing a summit on social housing, neither Mr Blair nor Ms Kelly referred to the row, but their appearance was seen as confirmation of the Prime Minister's continued support. Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "What the Prime Minister supports absolutely is the right of parents to make choices about their children's education which are best suited to their children's needs, irrespective of who their parents are or what job they do."
Ms Kelly said in a statement on Monday that she had done the "right thing" in following professional advice over the needs of her child, who has "substantial" learning difficulties. Her other children would remain in the state sector, she added.
Mr Blair and Ms Kelly announced at the summit that council tenants' organisations are to be given the power to apply for antisocial behaviour orders to tackle nuisance residents.
'It's about time we got an MP who cared about Bolton'
Ruth Kelly was on the rack in her Bolton parliamentary constituency days before the private school controversy broke. Rumours have been circulating since before Christmas that she may be planning to jump from the relatively marginal Bolton West constituency to the more comfortable Bolton South East. Many of the Bolton electorate seem especially angry at their MP for sending her children to schools in the Home Counties. "It's about time we got an MP who lived and cared about Bolton rather than herself," one constituent said. Another added: "The caption under the picture 'Ruth Kelly leaves her London home' says it all really."
Anne Barton, a third constituent, said Ms Kelly's decision revealed a flawed education policy. "It is a reflection on this failed Labour Government that after all their boasting about investing in education, one of their ministers has to resort to sending her child to a private school," she said.
Ian HerbertReuse content