It may have been the defeat that never was, but the Government's carelessness at losing a vital part of the Education Bill has helped heap coals on the growing election fever.
The Conservatives were caught out in a classic ambush by the Opposition, when Peter Kilfoyle, Labour's education frontbencher, called an earlier-than-expected vote on a clause to extend grant-maintained schools' powers. Although it was later discovered the vote was a tie and had been counted incorrectly, the result was left to stand.
Mr Major, when greeting his Cabinet to a manifesto-planning meeting in Chequers, earlier the same day, had affected a relaxed, woolly-jumpered look. But the news that party managers had managed to lose the vote in a spectacularly shambolic fashion soon wiped the smile off his face. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, used the following Prime Minister's Question Time to turn the knife. "Why don't you simply call a halt to what is the fag-end of a burnt-out Government?" he asked.
The Prime Minister seemed to concede that he may not be able to reverse the defeat by reintroducing the clause, which allows grant maintained schools to expand their premises without seeking permission, in the House of Lords. He said he would press for the new GM school powers "either before or after the election". It was also revealed that one of his main election promises will be to allow all successful schools to expand.
It was Anthony Coombs, the education Whip, who was blamed. It was his fault the clause had been lost during the committee stage of the Bill - he got himself locked out when the vote was taken - and he was fingered for the miscount in the Commons vote. Donald Dewar, Labour's Chief Whip, could not resist the jibe that despite his private education (Charterhouse) Mr Coombs, who also went to Worcester College, Oxford, appeared unable to master basic numeracy.
Fortunately for him, a backbench Tory revolt failed to bring back corporal punishment (for state schools) and any caning was merely metaphorical.
The defeat prompted David Blunkett, Labour's education shadow, to call for the Education Secretary to do a deal. The Opposition broadly supports large parts of the Bill, including new discipline measures, home-school contracts, baseline assessment, a new qualifications body and national targets. Mr Blunkett suggested Mrs Shephard should ditch the parts of the Bill extending grant-maintained schools' powers and increasing selection to get the rest through. Not surprisingly, she declined.
The Bill will now go to the House of Lords, where even the Government's arithmetic shows a suitable majority to push it through. Even so, Government sources were gloomily suggesting its ultimate future depends on the election date.
A new Government clause, not opposed by the Opposition, will allow teachers or lunchtime supervisers to use reasonable force when intervening in playground brawls or if a pupil is damaging property or being disruptive. Teachers' unions are concerned that particularly since the Children Act their members have been vulnerable to accusations of assault. According to figures collated by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, 69 members were accused of assault last year. From 1991 to 1995, 358 accusations of assault were made, but in only 32 cases was there enough evidence to go to court.
The clause says the action taken by school staff should not constitute corporal punishment. Eric Forth, education minister, said: "There has been at least one well publicised case of a teacher being arrested after intervening to break up a playground fight. That cannot be right. Teachers and other appropriate staff in schools should be allowed, without fear of prosecution, to use moderate physical restraint where it is necessary to stop pupils fighting. "
Two clauses which attempted to bring back the use of corporal punishment, tabled by James Pawsey, chairman of the Tory backbench education committee, and Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, were not backed by the Government and were lost. But it was still embarrassing for the Government, which had made the vote technically free for backbenchers, to see 101 MPs calling for the cane.
The usual tales of bloodied buttocks were trotted out from the "never-did-me-any-harm" school. Mr Marlow claimed that schools had been reduced to a "savage anarchy" since caning had been abolished. Eric Forth, education minister, said there was no evidence to show that corporal punishment was a deterrent - traditionally it was always the same culprits who lined up outside the headteacher's office.
More intriguing was the Government's response to a Labour amendment calling for the establishment of a General Teaching Council. When the clause was first aired at committee stage, Eric Forth said: "The time for a general teaching council may have come ... However, several fundamental questions need to be answered before we could progress on the lines set out in the new clause. "
This represents a huge shift in the Government's thinking. Sources within the education department preferred not to comment on a Sunday newspaper story which suggested that a regulatory General Teaching Council, similar to the doctors' General Medical Council (and with the power to "strike off" bad teachers), would be a Tory manifesto proposal.
Labour heard support for the principle of a GTC from the Conservative benches. Sir Malcolm Thornton, chairman of the Commons select committee on education and employment, has put forward a private member's Bill - which has no chance of becoming law - to set one up. During the debate Mr Forth confirmed it was a matter the Government would be paying attention to. However, the clause was lost. The Bill then received its third reading.
The Prime Minister's programme for another Tory term was revealed this week in a series of leaks and guesses. The old chestnut of a grammar school in every town received another airing. Another plan mooted was for private management teams to take over failing schools, and the end of local education authorities was also forecast.