Steve Richards: Here we go again: Blair is performing his high-wire act, just like he did over Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair returns to a familiar position. His self-described high-wire act in relation to schools' reforms takes him back to where he was in the second term as he tried to convince his party about the wisdom of invading Iraq.

Mr Blair has more or less the same coalition of support for his schools' reforms. On his side now are most newspapers, columnists and the Conservative Party. Against his plans for schools are a significant section of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

The tone of support for Mr Blair in the current situation is also the same as it was in the months leading to war. His admirers praise the boldness of his vision and warn him not to give in to the weak-kneed, backward-looking critics in his own party.

Mr Blair made support for the war a fundamental test for the Labour Party. With the same messianic zeal he does so now with schools. In relation to the war, Mr Blair made clear it would be disastrous for Labour to be seen as anti-American, reviving its vote-losing reputation of the 1980s. A Labour government had to show it was capable of rising to an international challenge. If it failed to do so, the stage would be cleared for the Conservatives, who supported the war unambiguously.

Now the Prime Minister describes his reforms for schools as "fundamental to everything we believe in". His ally Peter Mandelson has described the prime ministerial stance as critical for the future of New Labour, showing that the party is on the "side of reform", warning that if Labour does not implement these reforms they will vacate space for the Conservatives.

The message during the build-up to the war and over schools' reform is the same: the Government and New Labour are doomed if Labour MPs fail to support Mr Blair. There were suggestions Mr Blair would resign if he failed to get his way over the war. There have been similar reports once more.

In both cases, the role of Gordon Brown has been the subject of seething speculation. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer had come out against the war he would have destroyed Mr Blair's premiership but inherited a split and traumatised Labour Party perceived in a critical media as returning to Old Labour values. If Mr Brown were to strike now there would be a similarly cataclysmic fall-out. Not surprisingly, Mr Brown declares his support for the education reforms as he did for the war.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown are working more closely now, but the rapprochement is limited. Mr Blair wants to leave behind a united Labour Party. Mr Brown wants to inherit one. Within these perimeters they function together. The two of them and their allies started to meet regularly after Mr Blair was defeated dramatically in the Commons over his proposals to allow police to detain suspects for 90 days. Within days of that defeat intermediaries brought them together alarmed at the prospect of a Labour Party split over every key item Mr Blair seeks to introduce.

Since then there have been public manifestations of the new working relationship. Mr Blair praises Mr Brown as his natural successor. Mr Brown declares support for Mr Blair's reforms. I suspect that no date is agreed for the handover, but both of them and close allies work more actively for a smooth transition. They dance together united only in their desire to be standing when the music stops.

Privately Mr Brown will almost certainly have misgivings about the schools White Paper. He is an obsessively forensic politician and will have noted the impartial warnings from authoritative organisations. Here is another gloomy parallel with Iraq. Mr Blair takes note only of the evidence that supports his case. Over Iraq he ignored the warnings about the speculative nature of the intelligence. Over schools he brushes aside the fears of the independent audit commission.

Two weeks ago the commission warned his proposals would work against "the interests of the most disadvantaged, least mobile and least informed parents and children ... In many parts of the country, choice is neither realistic nor an issue of primary importance".

Such views are hardly heard in the current highly charged atmosphere. Opponents of Mr Blair's plans are dismissed patronisingly and absurdly as being against good schools and as being "anti-reform". Similarly those that dared to wonder whether Iraq possessed WMD in advance of the war were regarded on the whole as backward-looking peaceniks who had lost Labour elections in the 1980s.

Once more the main highly charged question is whether Mr Blair can prevail. The same question overwhelmed all others in the build-up to the war. Then Mr Blair had little spare time to focus on the aftermath of war. Every spare second was spent on seeking to persuade the UN, his party and the British voters that the war was necessary. Now attention is spent on persuading MPs to back the schools' reforms. There is little focus on the practical implications for schools and pupils if the proposals are implemented.

As with Iraq there is a fundamental ideological divide fuelling the debate. In the second term the divide was between ardent Atlanticists and those that viewed the UN, for all its flaws, as the only viable mechanism for policing international law. Now the divide is over the role of the state. It is between those on the centre left who regard the state as capable of having a benevolent impact and those who regard it as a burden to be lifted.

There is another parallel. Iraq obscured many of the Government's successes. It was during the second term that investment in public services soared, the underfunding of universities was addressed in a way that was fair and affordable for students, pernicious laws such as Section 28 were abolished, and the hopeless Railtrack was cast to one side. By the time of last year's election voters were in no mood to express gratitude, largely because of Iraq.

Now it is the rows over schools that give the impression of a government in disarray when on many fronts it retains a sense of energetic purpose. In parts of his "respect" agenda and with the publication of yesterday's health White Paper, Mr Blair shows still an astute grasp of what worries voters, including those from poorer areas. Indeed he is right to be concerned about under-performing schools, an issue over which some internal opponents are complacent. It is just that his solution is messily divisive and his characteristic elevation of the issue to one that becomes political life or death is misjudged.

On the war Mr Blair prevailed. Over schools I predict he will make small compromises and most Labour MPs will come on board as they did over the war. We know what happened next in Iraq.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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