An old-fashioned scoop ...

9th December 1994 at 00:00
At the Daily Mail, they do not believe in mincing words. "Labour leader Tony Blair has made a mockery of party policy by choosing one of the leading grant-maintained schools for his own son," trumpeted the front-page "exclusive" last Thursday.

The next day, there was a juicy follow-up, also leading the front page. "Tony Blair was forced to rewrite Labour education policy yesterday in the row over his son's schooling," it said, announcing a softening of Labour's policy towards grant maintained schools after Mr Blair had confirmed his intention of sending his ten-year-old son Euan to the London Oratory School in Fulham, eight miles from his Islington home.

Having embarrassed Mr Blair mightily for two days, the Mail reaped its reward from a grateful Government. Next to a picture of Gillian Shephard holding aloft a copy of the original story, it was able to report that she had "praised the Daily Mail for revealing the news".

Alas, the Daily Express revealed the day after the Mail's exclusive that the Express had broken the story nearly six months earlier. The trouble is, nobody had noticed. Perhaps that's because the Express "did not make a gloating song and dance about the Blairs' decision".

But stay: was it really the Daily Express that first broke the story? The day after the Daily Mail's "scoop", the Independent also emerged into the limelight, yawning at such old news. "As first reported in the Independent in June..." ran the Indie's news story. Its editorial was as sympathetic to Tony Blair as that of the Daily Express, although its prose was less purple.

The charge of hypocrisy against Blair was "trivial and mischievous", it said. It was not as if the Labour leader had decided to "buy privilege" by withdrawing his son from the state sector; he had merely chosen what he regarded as the best route through the public sector for his son. "If Mr Blair's temporary embarrassment encourages him to push the party into a thoughtful liberalisation of its policies, the episode will have served a constructive purpose," it concluded.

This was not the view of the paper's stablemate, the Independent on Sunday. In a leader entitled "Blair's school for scandal", it took issue with Mr Blair's much-quoted remark: "I am not going to make a choice for my child on the basis of what is the politically correct thing to do."

"So," said the IoS witheringly, "the principles of Labour education policy for the past 30 years - that schools should be organised to give all children a fair chance - turn out to be in the same class as calling a cripple 'differently abled'. His tone and his use of the word 'choice' suggested that, as a private citizen at least, he embraced Tory beliefs in unrestrained individualism and that he had no real sympathy for the 'community values' he espoused so often."

Much the same view underlay a leader masquerading as a news feature in The Observer. "It is difficult to be precise as to when the comprehensive ideal took hold of the Labour party, but much easier to date the day it died - 1 December 1994," it began. Tony and Cherie Blair, in common with many others from Islington, had decided that what was good enough for the sons or daughters of their cleaners, plumbers and builders was not good enough for them.

But it was not a paper to the left of centre that showed the truly far-reaching implications of the affair for Labour education policy. A sparkling leader in the Sunday Telegraph pointed out that the Blairs' choice of school was interesting for more reasons than that it was a grant maintained school some distance from their home.

"They have not selected a school distinguished for good results alone: they have chosen what is probably the most conservative education available in London outside the private sector," the leader said. "It is a school whose headmaster helped draft the educational passages of the Conservative manifesto of 1987." (Telegraph leader writers know these things.) "He wears a gown. His school teaches Latin ... His pupils, who wear formal uniforms, are all boys, except in the sixth form. They are streamed. And almost all of them are Roman Catholics and Catholics, moreover, under the watchful eye of the London Oratory, the most traditionalist of Catholic churches in London."

Their choice, the Sunday Telegraph said, was "an implied slap in the face not only to Labour's specific education policy but also for the entire social and moral position which the party had come to espouse since the 1960s ... We have seen the past, they are saying sotto voce, and it works."

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