Tony Blair's authority as Prime Minister was badly dented as he was forced to rely on the votes of Tory MPs to win a crucial Commons vote on his school reforms.
Fifty-two Labour MPs voted against the Education Bill last night but the support of the Tory Opposition ensured it was given a second reading by a 458 votes to 115, a government majority of 343.
Mr Blair narrowly escaped a humiliating defeat in a second vote on a procedural motion setting out the timetable for discussing the measure. The Government won that by 300 votes to 290.
With a working majority of 69, Mr Blair and his ministers worked overtime to keep the Labour rebellion against his plans for independent trust schools below 35 MPs so that he was not dependent on the Opposition. But enough Labour critics stood firm, warning that the Bill could result in a two-tier system with schools not seeking trust status being left behind.
Critics were quick to rename Mr Blair ''Ramsay MacBlair'', after the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, seen as a traitor in Labour ranks after forming a national government with the Tories in 1931. Left-wingers claimed the Prime Minister had ''walked out on the party and effectively resigned as leader''.
The huge Labour rebellion over a flagship Bill fuelled speculation on how long Mr Blair can remain as Prime Minister and whether he will secure support for other planned legislation on pensions, incapacity benefit and nuclear power. Critics said last night's vote would ''put the brakes" on his "unremittingly New Labour agenda''.
Although Mr Blair has promised to stand down before the next election, he shows no sign of quitting soon and allies insisted last night's vote would not force him to change his plans.
But Labour MPs predicted that the rebellion would speed Mr Blair's departure from No 10 - especially if it is followed by poor results in the May local elections.
John McDonnell, who chairs the left-wing Labour Representation Committee, said: ''This is a defining moment in the history of the Labour Party and this New Labour Government. Tony Blair has chosen to mark the 75th anniversary of Ramsay MacDonald's coalition national government by entering into a floating alliance with the Tories to secure the passage of the Education Bill, completely disregarding the views of Labour MPs and party members.
"By relying upon Tory support in the face of his own backbenchers Tony Blair has lost not just his moral authority but the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party.''
One cabinet minister admitted: "Of course his authority has been diminished. There is no point in denying it.''
Mr Blair will come out fighting at a Downing Street press conference today, saying that passing the Bill is the right thing for the country and that the majority of Labour MPs backed the measure.
Mr Blair clashed with David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, accusing the Tory leader of playing the ''Punch and Judy politics'' he had promised to avoid by opposing the timetable motion. But Mr Cameron replied: ''I support the education reforms - I don't support undermining Parliament.''
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, promised Labour MPs that schools that select some or all of their pupils by academic ability would not be allowed to expand.
Despite the huge majority in the second reading vote, there could be trouble ahead during the Bill's passage through the Commons. Some potential Labour rebels who backed the Government last night warned they would seek further changes during the Bill's later stages.Some claimed they had already been promised more concessions.
Senior Tories insisted they were not giving the Government a ''blank cheque''. Labour MPs fear the Tories will oppose the measure at its third reading if ministers make more concessions. That could scupper the whole Bill - and force Mr Blair to resign.
How the parties voted
For 274 (includes 2 tellers)
Did not vote 23
Did not vote 19
Against 63 (inc 2 tellers)
Did not vote 0
Did not vote 12Reuse content