Steve Richards: Mr Prescott has disagreed publicly with Mr Blair before - and each time he has won

I am told authoritatively that Mr Blair is willing to compromise over the Education White Paper
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It has nothing to do with Mr Blair's authority. Mr Prescott would have intervened in a similar fashion if the Prime Minister were at the height of his powers and enjoying still a political honeymoon. I make this assertion with confidence because Mr Prescott DID intervene in a similarly controversial manner when the Prime Minister was 20 points ahead in the polls during Labour's first term.

During the early period when Mr Blair was perceived by many to be walking on water, Mr Prescott made three similarly controversial declarations. In January 1999 he railed against the use of focus groups in Downing Street. He fumed in particular that Transport had not been given the priority it deserved because the focus groups listed it as a low-level concern. In an earlier interview with me on the eve of Labour's conference in 1998 he declared his opposition to proportional representation for local elections at a time when Mr Blair wanted to introduce the reform. In other interviews he spoke out against closer ties with the Lib Dems during a period when Mr Blair still sought a relationship with the third party. What happened on Sunday was not a first for the Deputy PM.

Mr Prescott's troublemaking interventions are limited to blocking off policy options with which he passionately disagrees. What makes his latest contribution so significant is that he tends to act publicly only when he knows he can make a difference.

In this case I am told authoritatively that Mr Blair is willing to compromise over the White Paper. He will make changes based on the report from the Education Select Committee that will be published next month. Evidently Mr Blair has made the strategic calculation that it is better to have the backing of most Labour MPs rather than win a vote with the support of the Conservative Party. Again this is not a reflection of Mr Blair's diminishing authority. He has always been capable of adjusting policies to the demands of external circumstances. It is just that in the past he has tended to compromise with those outside the Labour Party.

To some extent he bowed to the fuel protesters in autumn 2000. More recently he performed a U-turn in offering a referendum on the EU constitution, partly to appease Rupert Murdoch and his mighty newspapers. Now he finds for the first time that political expediency demands compromises with his own party. He will make them.

The nature of the compromise though is not entirely clear as parts of the White Paper are hopelessly muddled. The controversial document hails the creation of independent free standing schools.

If that were really the objective Mr Prescott would have every right to be concerned. In such circumstances some schools would inevitably select the brightest pupils to the detriment of nearby schools. Yet Downing Street insiders have told me on a number of occasions, and not just in reaction to Mr Prescott, that selection on the basis of academic ability will be barred. If that is the case the schools will not be as independent and free standing as billed. Indeed in the pivotal area of admissions they will be severely constrained.

It is not clear whether Mr Blair set out to impose such an important constraint from the beginning. Before the last election ministers in the Department for Education and Skills were under constant pressure from Downing Street to come up with policies that were "more radical". Perhaps they concluded then that placing statutory restrictions on schools' admissions was not "radical" enough. But even if the route from the launch of the policy in 2004 has been long and meandering it seems clear now that selection will be barred, thereby removing a freedom most ruthlessly and divisively exploited in the past by schools.

Mr Blair is partly to blame for the confusion. His introduction to the White Paper is more revolutionary in tone than much of the contents. This has always been his style and it is becoming increasingly counter-productive.

If Mr Blair takes a walk down the road he proclaims a revolution in transport. In this case he writes in the introduction to the White Paper in the style of the Thatcherite guru, Sir Keith Joseph. Choice for parents and freedom for schools are the twin themes.

He chose a distorting framework. Parents will not be able to visit a number of schools and choose their favourite in the certain knowledge they will be offered a place. Some schools will be oversubscribed. Rejected parents will not feel they have exerted any choice at all. It is schools that are being given the right to choose pupils and even their choice will be rightly curtailed.

Mr Blair would have been wiser to frame the arguments in terms of allowing schools to innovate more freely. Some powers will be transferred from local to central government in terms of regulating admissions and raising standards, but there will be no free-for-all with schools competing for the brightest pupils. There will be scope for more providers, but they will have to meet the strict criteria laid down by the Government. If Mr Blair had presented the proposals in a framework of innovation, higher standards and fairness there would have been less fuss. Instead he claimed the mantle of choice and historic change. Not surprisingly fair-minded loyal Labour MPs became alarmed.

The unlikely alliance of Mr Prescott and David Cameron means that the outcome of the education row is now more predictable. Mr Prescott's public comments mean that the mainstream rebels have a representative at the heart of government. Mr Blair has no choice but to seek a public rapprochement with his deputy by clarifying in particular the admissions policy for schools. Conversely Mr Cameron's support for Mr Blair has forced the Prime Minister to place greater emphasis than normal on his differences with the Conservatives rather than those he has with his own party.

On previous occasions when Mr Prescott has intervened publicly in relation to policies he has prevailed. I predict that in the new year Mr Blair will opt to dance arm in arm with his deputy and present the Conservative leader with a dilemma. Should he join the dance too? Mr Blair might have preferred slightly different tunes, but a clinch in the new year with Mr Cameron as Mr Prescott fumes on the sidelines would be a step too far. The TV hit Strictly Come Dancing has nothing on this.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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