John Rentoul: Tony Blair listens, all right. He just refuses to agree with what his party is saying

Brown asks for several offences to be taken into consideration
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The Independent Online

So when Labour backbenchers said, after the rebellion on police powers to detain suspected terrorists, that they wanted the Prime Minister to listen more, one does wonder whether they have quite got it. He listened to them, all right. It is not as if the arguments against the plan to detain suspects without charge for 90 days were confined to obscure civil libertarian journals unknown to the Whitehall machine. He listened, but he did not agree. Many of the opponents of the plans for trust schools say they want Blair to "consult" more. They must know perfectly well that, after eight years, the Prime Minister knows what he wants. What they mean is that they do not like it.

Blair has no intention of consulting on schools reform. He is prepared to bend, but only to persuade. Whenever he gives an interview to The Guardian (two weekends ago) or writes an article for it (last week), you know he is in trouble with the Labour Party, because that is the newspaper most read by its members. But he has no intention of yielding on any important point in the legislation.

At some level, his internal critics understand this. The complaint that Blair has already decided on policies that he intends to "railroad" through party and Parliament has been the growing clamour in the background. It makes his Labour critics all the more determined to oppose the schools Bill, and all the less willing to examine the policy itself.

Hence the Pythonesque quality of the debate. Blair: "There will be no return to selection aged 11" (24 October). Labour critic: "What we must not have is a return to selection" (all available media outlets, every day since). We know what the critics don't want, and that the Government isn't proposing it, so perhaps there are positive measures that they do want, that the Government won't do? Councillor Truculent of the Local Government Association was asked on the radio the other day for his alternative: "Every school should be a good school," he said. Yes, but how? And if that means no school should be made better unless all schools are, then it is just an argument for doing nothing.

Blair is in warm-words mode. When he launched the White Paper last month, he spoke bravely of a "market" in state schools, before stressing that it "will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power". There was none of that language in his Sedgefield speech on Friday, but his course is set. "We know what works," he said.

The Prime Minister may sound flexible but, despite a report to the contrary yesterday, he is not actually ready to compromise. I suspect that he feels he had to do enough of that to produce a White Paper at all. And he doesn't have to. David Cameron has already committed the Conservative Party to supporting the Bill. The cry of "Ramsay MacDonald!" has already gone up. Labour rebels are spitting pre-emptively about a Labour prime minister relying on Tory votes to get his legislation through. It is not an accusation that is likely to bother Blair for a moment. For one thing, it would not be true: only if Labour rebels plus Liberal Democrats and others outnumber Labour loyalists would Tory votes make a difference. There may be a lot of Labour dissidents, but there are not that many. For another, he is unlikely to take lectures from Labour MPs who voted with the Tories to defeat him on the Terrorism Bill earlier this month.

He knows what he wants, and - unlike on the Terrorism Bill - he knows that he will get it. It is up to potential Labour rebels to decide what they want. The real answer, in many cases, is probably: "Gordon Brown." Which is why the Chancellor's words last week were so significant. "The combination of our reforms is to give greater opportunities to every child," he told The Times. "Greater choice for parents and all these things are part of that educational reform. That's why we are pushing forward with the new White Paper."

It was his Al Gore moment. It was the moment, as one Blairite MP (yes, there are still a few) put it to me, when Brown chose between being "an inheritor or a distancer". Senator Gore famously tried to distance himself from Bill Clinton, a popular president whose private conduct he regarded with barely concealed distaste, and lost. ("Fair and square," as Clinton said, "by five votes to four in the Supreme Court.") Gore was so traumatised that he grew a beard for a while.

Brown is keen to carry on shaving. He knows that many of his supporters regard Blair's political triangulations with the same sort of distaste that Gore felt for Clinton's sexual dalliances. But he does not intend to make Gore's mistake.

Hence his backing for the schools White Paper. The Chancellor does not even give any ground to the notions of consultation and compromise: "When the reforms are explained to people, they will see they are the right thing to do."

Not only that, but he asked for several other offences against the Old Labour canon to be taken into consideration. "I have introduced most of the Private Finance Initiative, sold off air traffic control, made a controversial decision on the London Underground, set up the Gershon review to sack or make redundant 80,000 civil servants, made the Bank of England independent and introduced the most widespread competition reforms this country has ever seen," he said. Nothing quite like it has been heard since the forced confessions of Stalin's show trials.

Brown is going to support Blair over the hurdles erected by the Sooner Rather Than Later faction of the Labour Party in the coming period: identity cards, pensions, incapacity benefit, nuclear power and Trident. And this is only the harbinger of a harder truth to come. If and when Brown takes over from Blair, his tone and style will be very different. But his policies will be the same unremittingly New Labour policies. As Blair said: "I don't think everyone here has quite got it."