Tony Blair is to delay introducing controversial schools reforms, putting off publication of the education bill amid warnings from senior ministers that he will need to make substantial concessions to Labour rebels.
Two further members of the cabinet have joined John Prescott, deputy prime minister, in voicing concern at the reforms, according to Whitehall insiders.
Patricia Hewitt, health secretary, and Geoff, Hoon, Commons leader, have swelled the ranks of ministers and backbenchers who fear the white paper could divide communities and cause admissions chaos.
After initial soundings of Labour backbenchers, there is now a growing conviction in government that Mr Blair will need to make concessions if he is to get a forthcoming bill through parliament without relying on Conservative support. Senior Whitehall insiders fear defeat on the issue would spell the end of his premiership. Education ministers are understood to be looking at several options for tightening up the criteria under which schools could become semi-independent "trusts" with more autonomy.
One compromise proposal being discussed would see the bill limit trust status to federations of schools, promoting collaboration rather than competition between providers. Alternatively it has been suggested allowing only foundation schools, formerly grant-maintained schools that already have some limited freedoms, to adopt trust status.
More than 70 MPs who have signed up to an alternative package of reforms fear the plans to give schools greater freedoms would lead to academic selection and poorer children being penalised. The scale of opposition is such that Downing Street has already been told by government whips that the white paper does not have enough backing within the parliamentary Labour party.
One senior government member warned recently that Mr Blair would almost certainly have to make concessions to its critics.
"It is difficult. There will have to be big changes. We can't afford another defeat."
Number 10 had intended to publish the education bill in February. But with Ruth Kelly, education secretary, distracted by a row over sex offenders, ministers believe more time will be needed to draft legislation that can win the support of Labour MPs.
It is understood the bill will not now appear before March. A vote on the legislation, seen as the next big test of the prime minister's authority after last year's humiliating defeat over new anti-terror laws, could come just before Easter. Criticism of the white paper, which would give schools and parents more control over admissions policies, has intensified in the cabinet.
Ms Hewitt has told colleagues she is worried about the impact that local Muslims setting up trust schools could have on Hindus in her Leicester West constituency.
Other ministers have voiced concern about problems of extending choice for parents living outside cities.
Education ministers have put emphasis on the meetings they have had with backbenchers and with Labour party councillors, many of whom are unhappy with suggestions that local education authorities would assume only strategic roles. Backbenchers have asked for tighter language on the issue of trusts. Ms Kelly, still under pressure over the employment of sex offenders in schools, was to make a Commons statement on the issue. She was expected to announce the conclusions of a departmental review examining decisions taken by ministers and officials over 30 years.
David Willetts, shadow education secretary, said it was "shocking" the government could not or would not yet say how many people on the offenders' register were cleared to teach.
(FT Syndication Service)