BLAIR ON THE ‘HIGH WIRE’ – ‘A significant number of my side are against’

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Prime Minister Blair yesterday admitted at his monthly press conference that the opposition to his schools ‘reforms’ made getting them through parliament ‘a bit of a highwire act’.

It was not lost on his media audience in Downing Street that he was admitting that he could come off the wire and be brought down.

Blair said his education reforms were ‘fundamental’ to his government’s politics, adding: ‘I’m not intending to lose it but it’s a bit of a high wire act just at the moment.

‘I accept that because I’ve got a significant number of my own side who are against it’.

More than 90 Labour MPs oppose his plans for the introduction of ‘trust’ schools.

These will have the ‘freedom’ to go into partnership with private firms, voluntary or church organisations, set their own pay and conditions, and alter the national curriculum.

But Blair continued to insist yesterday that ‘this is the right way to go’.

Asked about Tory leader Cameron’s offer of support to push the ‘reforms’ through, Blair said: ‘I’ve never had a problem with my opponents saying they agree with me. I am very relaxed about this.’

However, he added: ‘I’m not laying any bets on the Conservatives supporting me.’

In his introductory remarks, Blair said ‘we want the same ability to have external partners’, adding ‘we want that, as of right, to be extended to all schools’.

He denied that his ‘reforms’ were a return to selection. When it was put to him that selection is already happening by the ‘back door’, he said this was a ‘red herring’.

Blair also announced that he will be unveiling a government Green Paper on ‘welfare reform’ – to force sick and disabled people ‘off benefits and into work.’

He claimed there ‘are far too many barriers that prevent people who could work to do so’.

In answer to questions, Blair confirmed that the Green Paper ‘will address the issue of lone parents’.

He added that ‘we want to encourage everyone not to be on benefit when they could be at work’.

Blair was also asked would he follow French president Chirac and be prepared to use nuclear weapons against ‘rogue states’.

He replied: ‘I strongly endorse what he is saying about the threat today coming from rogue states.

l The House of Lords yesterday defeated the government by 198 to 143 deleting a clause that would have made the possession of identity cards compulsory.

• Second news story

FORD – 30,000 JOBS & 14 PLANTS TO GO

THE Ford Motor Company yesterday said it plans to axe 14 manufacturing plants in North America by 2012, with the loss of between 25,000 to 30,000 jobs, after announcing that its North American auto operations lost $1.6 billion in 2005.

To restore profitability no later than 2008, Bill Ford, chairman and CEO said: ‘We will be making painful sacrifices to protect Ford’s heritage and secure our future.’

A Ford statement said: ‘Fourteen manufacturing facilities will be idled and cease production by 2012, including a total of seven vehicle assembly plants.

‘Assembly capacity will be reduced by 1.2 million units or 26 per cent by the end of 2008.

‘A new low-cost manufacturing site is planned for the future. Ford will idle the following facilities through 2008: St Louis Assembly, Atlanta Assembly, Wixom Assembly, Batavia Transmission Windsor Casting (announced following CAW contract negotiations in 2005). Two additional assembly plants, will be determined later this year.

‘In addition, production at St Thomas Assembly will be reduced to one shift. Facilities operated by Automotive Components Holding LLC are not included in the new announcement.

‘All of these actions will reduce total North American employment by 25,000-30,000 people in the 2006-2012 time period.

‘This is in addition to the previously announced reduction of the equivalent of 4,000 salaried positions in the first quarter of 2006 – or 10 per cent of salary-related costs – and a reduction in the company’s officer ranks by 12 per cent by the end of the first quarter.

‘Ford has briefed the leadership of the UAW and CAW about these plans.’