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MP quits post over education reforms in blow to prime minister


Christopher Adams from London
Tony Blair's efforts to win over Labour backbenchers to his education reforms were hit November 30 when a loyalist MP tasked with the job quit his post in protest.
Martin Salter, parliamentary private secretary to Jacqui Smith, education minister, circulated an e-mail to Labour backbenchers complaining of a "military-style operation" to persuade MPs and local councillors to back reforms he himself was unhappy with.
It is believed the e-mail said Mr Salter was not prepared to remain in a position where he had "a conflict of interest". His resignation was seen as a blow to the prime minister, who faces a huge task in trying to win round mainstream Labour MPs to reforms that would give schools and parents greater powers at the expense of local authorities.
A bill setting out the reforms to schools, a main plank of Mr Blair's domestic agenda, is expected early in the new year. A white paper published earlier has caused deep disquiet among backbenchers.
"This is the first visible reflection of the strength of feeling over and above deep disquiet about the issue, the first tangible reflection of it," said one moderate MP who had seen the e-mail. "It's a signpost of where we're going. Martin is someone who is seen as loyal, mainstream, an old hand in Labour. This is a politician who's decided that it's worth more than his developing front-bench career."
Mr Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, had been a member of a parliamentary committee whose job it was to liaise between MPs and the prime minister on the white paper. He was expected to articulate the views of backbenchers while helping to develop the policy.
But MPs said that his e-mail showed he felt unable to do that. "There's no blurred edges to it," said another backbencher. "It's singularly about the trajectory on education."
For Mr Blair, the resignation is evidence of how fragile his grip on the parliamentary party is becoming. After a humiliating defeat over the anti-terror bill last month -- the first on a big domestic issue since he won power in 1997 -- Mr Blair has stressed he will be consensual on planned reforms.
But, for some backbenchers, anxious that he should step aside sooner rather than later to make way for Gordon Brown, this promise has come too late. There will be no shortage of rebel MPs eager to capitalise on Mr Salter's resignation.
A Labour party official confirmed his resignation, but declined to give the reasons for it. "It's a matter that only he can comment on," said the official.
Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West and an opponent of the plans for schools, said: "Tony Blair has moved to the centre ground, which is great, that's where elections are won. But the territory he occupies at the moment would be alien to Robin Cook, John Smith and Nye Bevan.
"The feelings about the education bill run widely through the parliamentary party and the differences can't be reconciled. They are going to have to withdraw 80 per cent of their proposals or they'll only get it through parliament with Conservative support."
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