Steve Richards: Blair can survive a Labour revolt, but he is diminished by the support of the Tories

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The Independent Online

Last night's vote on the schools Bill is the latest manifestation of an already dramatically altered political situation. Some Labour dissenters voted against the Bill. Some gave it their provisional support. Their discontent sets the scene, but they are for once the peripheral players in a bigger drama. What has made Tony Blair incomparably more exposed since the autumn is the Conservatives' support for his schools reforms.

From the moment David Cameron made his move last autumn, everything changed. His declaration of support will come to be seen as an historic turning point, the moment when the Conservatives mastered the threat posed by the apparently invincible Labour leader. Last night they made Blair vulnerable once more with their support.

The debate that preceded the vote was the most vivid illustration of the transformed political landscape. It was as if the exchanges had been choreographed wildly by a drug- crazed director from another planet. Labour MPs agonised about what their government was doing while the Conservatives hailed the implementation of a Thatcherite vision. Blair can survive a Labour revolt. He is diminished by the Conservatives' support.

Since his election in 1997, Blair has been a determinedly centrist leader with an instinct to lurch rightwards at pivotal moments. Until the election of Cameron, he had occupied a distinctive place because the Conservatives moved further to the right in response. Blair was able to turn to his troubled party and state that although it might not like what he was doing, the only alternative was an even more right-wing Conservative Party.

On education, at least, he cannot play this card. If the sequence had unfolded as it had done in the past, the Conservatives would have responded to Blair's market-based proposals for schools by shrieking about a socialist outrage and demanding the introduction of vouchers and the privatisation of schools. Instead, their education spokesman, David Willets, pointed out in yesterday's debate that Margaret Thatcher had outlined a vision for independent and freestanding schools in the 1980s. It was therefore wholly logical that the Conservatives should back Blair when he sought a similar solution now.

On one level, therefore, politics has returned to normal. The party on the right votes for what it considers to be centre-right measures. The oddity is that a Labour Prime Minister in a third term still instigates measures in which the Conservatives hear echoes of their own past.

The Conservatives' newly discovered ability to follow the logic of their convictions wreaks havoc. During her statement yesterday, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, was interrupted relentlessly by Labour MPs. Their interventions were politely informed, not destructively negative. Contrary to mythology, most of them are reformers too. They sought assurances, not trouble. How would trust schools collaborate rather than compete with each other? Why do local authorities face a veto on setting up new schools when a few religious maniacs or dodgy business leaders face no such constraint? Is there not a risk the admissions system will cause chaos at a local level?

The last question was especially pertinent. Because of the overblown language that accompanied the launch of these proposals, there is a danger that parents will assume they have a greater chance of getting the school of their choice. In reality, quite a lot of them will be lucky to get their third or fourth choice, in which case they will be tempted to appeal. At the very least some parents will pose the politically awkward question as they struggle to get a school that meets their needs: what was all the fuss about?

Increasingly, I wondered what all the fuss had been about as it became clear that the supposedly free-standing schools would be as constrained as prisoners in a top-security jail. Ms Kelly stated that local authorities would have the power to intervene if eccentrics of any variety sought to run trusts. Parents and governors would be able to do so as well. The trusts would not be able to select on the basis of academic ability. There would be an admissions code, admissions forums presiding over the code and a schools commissioner.

How many trust schools would they preside over? Ms Kelly spoke of dozens . Others speculated about a handful. Blair is spending a huge amount of political capital on creating a few new schools that would be hugely and rightly constrained by a range of bodies.

In spite of the significant number who voted against the Government last night, the revolt understates the restive mood. Many Labour MPs worry about how this strange state of affairs came about: the original incoherent White Paper, the unpredictable consequences of even more varied schools, the failure to remove grammar schools. Indeed most Labour MPs who spoke during the debate made clear that their support last night was on the basis that there would be further concessions to come.

Martin Salter was typical. For nine minutes he spoke about the potential iniquities in the Bill and then explained in one minute why he would support it. He said he did not want to sub-contract the Bill to the Conservatives. This argument was the most convoluted of the lot: I do not like the Bill, but will support it to prevent it becoming a Conservative Act. The stance reflects the tortured atmosphere on Labour's side.

Blair has suggested that the dividing line is between those who advocate change and those who do not. The real one is between those on the centre-right who regard choice and markets as the way forward and those who seek other more equitable ways of raising standards in classrooms. In the debate, the former minister John Denham put forward an alternative radical strategy with a move towards balanced intakes and away from the market model hailed with such Thatcherite glee in the original White Paper. No one is arguing that further changes are unnecessary. Indeed the changes to the Bill since Mr Blair introduced the White Paper have brought about significant improvements.

The reforms are presented as courageous, but that obscures a desperate strategic timidity. Downing Street has presented last night's vote as proof that a majority of Labour MPs have shown they are on the side of reform, depriving the Conservatives of being able to make the claim alone. As far as I can tell, the defensive message means that a Labour government must implement Conservative policies or else the Conservative Party will get the credit for advocating them. In which case the Blair era reaches its logical climax with the Conservatives supporting his flagship reform.

Labour's rebels do not deprive Blair of political purpose or hasten his departure. The support of the Conservatives when he strides onto their terrain is a different matter.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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