Tories embarrass Blair by backing his school reforms

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Indy Politics

Mr Blair, who will defend his plans at his monthly press conference in Downing Street today, knows his authority will be destroyed if he has to rely on Conservative support to get the reforms through the Commons.

Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, signalled a partial retreat yesterday by saying ministers wanted to open "a dialogue" with their critics.

Tories on the committee will urge Mr Blair not to surrender. They support freedom from town hall interference for the independent trust schools and expansion of popular schools, as Mr Blair has proposed. Mr Blair's allies believe this is a crucial argument that he must win.

There is likely to be a furious row inside the committee today when it considers the draft report, leaked last week, by its Labour chairman, Barry Sheerman. The Tories on the committee are ready to reject it because it criticises the Prime Minister's plans, and calls for local authorities to be given a powerful role over trust schools. It also says schools should put social inclusion at the heart of admissions policy to stop the more popular schools creaming off the most talented pupils.

Despite the criticism, ministers hope the report will pave the way for a compromise with Labour rebels but the room for manoeuvre is small. Mr Johnson rejected one of the committee's proposals for all schools to be required to take a quota of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He said Government was not prepared to compromise on the fundamental principles set out by the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, in the schools White Paper.

The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the former education secretary Estelle Morris have voiced support for the revoltwhich has the backing of more than 90 MPs and is expected to rise to more than 100 names this week."Their particular concerns have to be addressed," Mr Johnsontold ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme.

Fiona Millar, the partner of Alastair Campbell, signalled yesterday that the Prime Minister's former communications director supports her campaign against selection in comprehensive schools.

Asked on BBC1's Sunday AMif Mr Campbell supported her, Ms Millar replied: "He's a great believer in comprehensive education, yes."

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