Tide turns on Blair

Shaken Blair faces education bill defeat. Zak Taylor reports

Opposition from within his own party caused Tony Blair’s first defeat as Prime Minister on the 9th of November. The House of Commons rejected his Terrorism Bill, which would allow the extension of the length of time terror suspects could legally be held without charge. It was the first time a government had been defeated since 1995.

The bill, proposed in response to the terror attacks in London over the summer, would have allowed suspects to be held for up to 90 days, rather than the current 14 day limit, without being charged.

The possibility of defeat was apparent to the government; Gordon Brown and Jack Straw were brought back from Israel and Moscow respectively in an attempt to increase the number of votes for the bill. Despite Labour’s comfortable majority of 66, parliament rejected the proposal by 322 votes to 291. The 49 rebel Labour MPs who voted against the government were enough to cause embarrassment to Blair, who strongly supported the proposal. A compromise was reached, although not one supported by the government, which allowed suspects to be detained for 28 days, a substantial increase on the previous limit of 14 days.

In the aftermath of the vote, the Prime Minister criticised the result. He remained adamant that Parliament had made the “wrong decision”, and claimed that the public would believe that they had acted in “a deeply irresponsible way.” He also declared that he did not intend to resign, despite Michael Howard’s call for him to do so. Even some Labour backbenchers joined opposition parties in calling for their leader to quit, further damaging his position in the party.

The defeat raises serious questions about how far Blair can take his educational reforms, which come before parliament next year. With a substantially reduced majority in parliament and the failure of the Terror Bill still recent, the threat of another rebellion by backbenchers is very credible, especially on a subject as controversial as this. The aim of the proposal is to give schools greater power over several areas currently administered by Local Education Authorities.

Blair believes that these plans, if implemented, will give more ‘choice’ to all parents, particularly helping working class families, allowing children from poorer backgrounds who are under-achieving in school to reach their full potential. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, suggested that the reforms do not do enough, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, claimed that Blair would do “a great disservice” to the education system by trying to force these plans through. Fears have been voiced from within the Labour Party that admission reforms will lead to an unfair selection policy. There are concerns that so-called ‘trust schools’ will create an education system in which the most talented pupils are in a small number of schools. It is also suggested that local government’s role in education would be diminished.

Tony Blair answered his critics by maintaining that admissions will be kept fair, as schools will still have to abide by the rules regarding the admission process in place at the moment. He argued that the current disparity between schools’ attainment levels would not be widened.

It is becoming more difficult for Tony Blair in his final term. With a reduced majority (now 66) allowing backbenchers to exercise more power, shown by the successful rebellion against the Terror Bill, some say that his authority has diminished. If this is the case, one of the Prime Minister’s toughest tests will come in convincing Parliament, in particular the sceptics in the Labour Party, to back his educational reforms. However, considering their controversial nature, it is looking increasingly likely that a second defeat might happen.