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UK's Blair faces key test of his authority in vote

By Staff
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LONDON, Mar 13 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a parliamentary vote this week that will be a major test of the authority he commands in his final term as leader.

A revolt by Blair's Labour Party colleagues over a flagship school reform plan looks big enough to force Blair to rely on the opposition Conservatives to get his law passed.

Such an outcome would be only slightly less damaging than defeat which would most likely hasten his exit, analysts say.

It could also deal a blow to Labour morale before local elections in May, Blair's first major electoral test since last year's national poll in which his majority was more than halved.

''The obvious danger is that it would add to the grumble factor in Labour and loosen the bonds of loyalty to Blair,'' said John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University.

Blair says he is relaxed about the prospect of getting the law passed with Conservative backing.

But junior education minister Jacqui Smith said she was working hard to get Labour lawmakers on board.

''This is a strong Labour bill which opens up opportunities to every child regardless of their background ... as a Labour bill this should be passed with Labour votes,'' she told Sky TV.

She said she would be trying to persuade colleagues in the runup to Wednesday's vote on the bill's underlying principles.

Blair has been viewed by critics as a lame duck since saying he would not stand at the next election, due by mid 2010. Many are are waiting for him to make way for his successor, widely expected to be finance minister Gordon Brown.

CAVING IN? Blair went to war in Iraq on the back of Conservative votes and has suffered three parliamentary defeats in the last five months. But this could be the first time so many Labour members oppose a policy central to the agenda Blair was elected on.

Fearing defeat, he has already made concessions which have cut the number of likely rebels to 40-60 from about 100.

Even prominent figures like the usually loyal Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott have voiced doubts about the plans which aim to give schools more autonomy in a bid to raise standards.

But for a party committed to equality, education is an ideological battleground and many in Labour fear the law would open the door to academic selection which they strongly oppose.

Since last May's election fewer than 40 Labour members can defeat the government if they vote with the opposition.

But new Conservative (Tory) leader David Cameron, seeking to shed the party's image as a group of opportunists, has decided to back the bill, saying it is a step in the right direction.

Some Tories will balk at missing a chance to defeat Blair.

''I think Cameron's decision was a very courageous one and it's one of the first big tests,'' said Conservative treasury spokesman George Osborne last week. ''It could have been a chance to defeat Tony Blair and possibly hasten his exit.'' Strathclyde's Curtice noted that Blair may risk losing Conservative support in further votes in coming weeks on the details of the bill if he made further concessions.

Reuters PV BS0936

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