John Rentoul: Tony Blair is entitled to be furious about the disloyalty of his Chancellor and deputy

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The Independent Online

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to right. The Prime Minister took to quoting Stealers Wheel at his news conference yesterday. It might have been impolitic to describe his Chancellor and his deputy as clowns, so he adapted the words slightly. "Fighting on the right of me, a bit of questioning on the left of me," he said. But he is entitled to be furious about the disloyalty of Gordon Brown and John Prescott.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has instructed intermediaries to let journalists know he does not approve of the European Union budget deal agreed by the Prime Minister. We cannot be sure of that, of course, because that is how deniable briefing works but, since the reports on Sunday, the Treasury has not contradicted them. On the contrary, its refusal to comment has allowed the Conservatives to make hay from the unsurprising fact that the value of the rebate forgone - like the rebate itself - will rise over time.

The trouble started at the weekend, though, when it was reported that Brown was not consulted over the terms of the final deal, but that he was available - in the US - to be consulted, and that, if it had been up to him, he would have insisted on more concrete promises of farm reform from the French.

He must take us for clowns if he thinks anyone will believe that. So flimsy is the structure of the Chancellor's case that the Sunday Times report of his doubts actually included the information required to collapse it. It said that Jon Cunliffe, a senior Treasury official, had been in Brussels as part of the British negotiations - which only draws attention to the broader absurdity of Brown's claim that he did not know what was going on.

The British proposal to give up part of the EU rebate in return for a smaller overall budget and a review of the Common Agricultural Policy was first tabled on 1 December, when Tony Blair went to Budapest to talk to central European leaders. If Brown thought the deal so unacceptable he could have said so then. At the least, he could have said Blair must not give up more of the rebate than the £5bn then proposed. At the traditional late-night haggling last Friday night, the British increased their offer by £1.7bn - over a seven-year period. Does the Chancellor seriously expect people to believe that £250m a year made the difference between a good deal and a bad deal? Or that he could, in addition, have persuaded Jacques Chirac to smack his forehead and exclaim: "Sacre bleu. You are quite right. We must get rid of these subsidies to petanque-playing French peasants at once."

Send in the clowns. By contrast, the jokers to the right of the Prime Minister - namely Nigel Farage of UKIP and David Cameron's other putative allies in the European Parliament - at least have a clear position. They want Britain out of the EU and trading in a global market in which the rules are mostly decided by others.

Then there is the other half of Labour's comedy duo. John "John is John" Prescott. He gave an interview at the weekend attacking Blair's schools White Paper which would have been comical if its significance had not been so serious. This is perhaps his most extraordinary sentence, talking about the middle classes: "If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that's the place they want to go to."

That is the Labour "mainstream" case against the reforms stated, with unexpected clarity, in all its absurdity. The "great danger" of the reforms is that some schools might "become good schools" - and the problem with that is that some middle-class parents might want to send their children there.

This is utterly baffling. For decades, the liberal education establishment has wrung its hands at middle-class flight from urban schools. Yet when Labour ministers come up with a policy that holds out the faintest prospect of turning round some of the most challenging schools in some of the most challenging areas - and the faintest prospect of reversing middle-class flight - it is fought tooth and nail by the liberal education establishment and Labour backbenchers.

What is the alternative to which the deputy prime minister was so deliberately lending his support? It is the "alternative white paper" published by Estelle Morris, a failed Education Secretary, and others. Its only practical proposal is to increase the powers of local education authorities, especially over admissions policy, to ensure "community cohesion". These are the same authorities that have presided over the growing polarisation of state education in recent decades.

If what Prescott said was bad enough - and we won't go into his patronising assertion that "middle-class parents are concerned about the quality of education for their children, which sadly is not the same for working-class parents" - his attempt to pretend he meant no harm was laughable. He suggested that he had stumbled into making some disparaging remarks about the White Paper because he was chatting to an old friend, Susan Crosland, widow of the patron saint of comprehensive schools.

Imagine my surprise, Prescott must have explained to Blair, when my words appeared in the form of an interview in The Sunday Telegraph. Tell you what, he probably said, I'll do a bit of backtracking. So he put out a statement saying the interview should not "be taken as fundamental opposition" to the White Paper and it was "authoritatively stated" that Prescott had not "finally declared war" on Blair.

Both Prescott and Brown are making fools of themselves. Not only are they wrong - people can take different views about that - but they are being irresponsible and counter-productive. Presumably, they are trying to put pressure on Blair to stand down earlier than he otherwise would. Just as Prescott tried unsuccessfully to hold Blair to his intention to stand down before the election by muttering that the tectonic "plates appear to be moving". Prescott came as close as he dared then to saying that he thought it was in the Labour Party's interest to have Brown take over. It didn't work then and it won't work now. Blair has already made it clear in private that attempts to force him out will only encourage him to stay on.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister tried to put on a "fighting" performance, although his heart hardly seemed in it. As he said, he has always had to see off challenges from both left and right - he is stuck in the middle. He seemed distracted, but that may be because he recognised that the threat came not from the journalists in front of him but from his senior supposed colleagues. The worst of it is that Brown and Prescott trying to push him out will only poison Brown's inheritance. The more undisciplined and disunited Labour's titans are, the happier and shinier David Cameron will seem.

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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