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UK's Blair braces for blow to authority on schools

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Mar 15 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a test of his already dented authority today when parliament votes on flagship school reforms that scores of his own followers oppose.

Labour Party lawmakers may rebel against the education bill in such numbers that Blair could be forced to rely on the opposition Conservative Party to pass it.

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

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

''The government takes nothing for granted. It will continue to argue the case up to the moment of the vote,'' Blair's spokesman said on Tuesday as ministers and members of parliament tussled in private meetings over the reforms.

The bill aims to raise education standards by giving more autonomy to schools to run their own affairs, backed by businesses and faith groups.

But critics fear the changes would open the door to academic selection and damage the chances of poorer students -- anathema to a party committed to equality.

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

But further changes to the bill could prompt the Conservatives to withdraw their support, exposing Blair to humiliating defeat.

Parliament will get to vote on the bill again after it has been scrutinised in committee, but Wednesday will be a litmus test of support for the measures.

Since Labour's once-hefty majority was slashed in May, fewer than 40 Labour members can defeat the government if they vote with the opposition. The opposition Liberal Democrats plan to oppose the bill.

Blair has said he is relaxed about passing the bill with Conservative votes.

But such a result would raise further questions over Blair's ability to control his party, giving ammunition to those who are urging a swift handover to his expected successor, finance minister Gordon Brown.

Blair has been viewed by critics as a lame duck since saying he would not stand at the next election, due by mid-2010.

His party has grown increasingly restive and Blair has suffered three parliamentary defeats in the last five months.

Blair went to war in Iraq on the back of Conservative votes, but this could be the first time so many Labour members oppose a policy central to the agenda Blair put to the country before his election win in May.

Reuters SK VP0640

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