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FE Education
Blair has learnt a lesson but education remains his biggest challenge
James Blitz from London

          Tony Blair embarked on the biggest challenge of his third term in Downing Street on November 18: getting Labour's rebel MPs to back his plans to give state secondary schools greater autonomy.
The prime minister knows all too well what the political stakes are with this planned legislation. If he succeeds and wins a clear majority for the measures in a critical Commons vote in February he will endow his premiership with a new burst of strength. But if the bill fails - or is watered down in a Labour rebellion - many will wonder what point there is to power.
We should beware of predicting failure. Mr Blair has learnt a critical lesson from his attempt to extend to 90 days the length of time that a suspect can be held without being charged - the issue that triggered his first Commons defeat in eight years. The lesson was that you have to make the argument for reform early on and that it has to be made with a real desire to engage seriously with MPs who are bogged down by myths and misconceptions.
Mr Blair is also learning about the need to modulate the tone a little. Downing Street has so far failed to get the presentation of these education reforms right, sounding far too messianic and radical about a string of changes which, in reality, amount to a continuation of what has already been achieved.
Number 10 signalled lately a desire to shift to a more conciliatory tone over the reforms, seeking to smash the myths surrounding the legislation. There will be "increased engagement" with Labour MPs and councillors, said Mr Blair's spokesman, with all the cabinet supporting the effort.
Mr Blair has recently made clear that giving schools greater autonomy is a policy rooted in Labour values, one aimed at improving the quality of education in some of the most deprived communities. Even so, there are some in Mr Blair's circle who are worried at how hard the task will be.
One Blairite MP privately warned that he feared backbench colleagues had already boxed themselves into voting against the legislation, come what may.
Others fear that, as he starts negotiating with rebel MPs, Mr Blair risks arriving at a point next February where the reforms end up giving schools far less autonomy than they already possess.
Some MPs, for example, are warning that they want to use the schools bill to go in a reverse direction from the one the government is advocating making it illegal for schools to implement any form of selection of pupils. That would remove any lingering discretion over selection that currently exists.
The Conservatives' stance on the bill will not help the government. David Cameron, their prospective new leader, said that he would back the bill when it comes to the Commons - thereby hoping to split Mr Blair from his MPs.
But it will do Mr Blair no good at all if he wins February's vote by enlisting the help of the Conservative opposition. That outcome would crystallise perceptions that Mr Blair only rules by forging quasi-Tory policies. In such circumstances, the demand from the Labour benches for him to quit would be deafening.
He is coming to terms with the realities of a majority of just 66, a situation in which just little more than 30 MPs need to vote against the government to trigger a crisis. Some of his allies, meanwhile, see this as a necessary challenge for the prime minister. "There is a silver lining to the situation on education," said one Blairite MP. "This battle could end up being functional, re-engaging Downing Street with the party in a way that it needed to do a long time ago. If the operation is successful, it could create a new and positive relationship."
But these are brave words. The education debate is now centre stage at Westminster. Other issues - the Turner report on pensions and the pre-Budget report - will hog the headlines in the coming days. But only when we know how the education battle was won and lost will we know the long-term prospects for British politics.
(FT Syndication Service)


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