(Photograph) - Conservative party activists last week defied ministers and called on the Government to stop restricting local authority spending.
In a rare challenge to the party's authority, they passed a motion at last week's conference in Blackpool urging the Tories to lift the council tax cap. They made their move amid rising concern over cuts in education.
In Nottinghamshire, where 400 teaching and support staff lost their jobs this year, schools were this week warned that next year will bring a Pounds 26 million budget cut. Each school has been told to expect a 10 per cent cut, and an estimated 1,000 teaching and support posts will be lost.
Ministers have been under sustained pressure from party activists and MPs to abolish - or even ease - the council-tax spending limit.
The campaign is being championed within the Cabinet by John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, who believes that such a move could damage Labour's chance of winning the general election and would expose spendthrift auth-orities.
Mr Gummer has the backing of Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, and several other ministers. This support appears to reflect a split between spending ministers and the Treasury, which remains opposed to lifting the cap.
Other supporters include James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee, and Demitri Coryton, chairman of the Conservative Education Association.
"It would be a foolish Government that ignored those very strong feelings from conference. A Tory party conference that doesn't do as it is told is exceptionally rare," said Mr Coryton.
Conservative conferences, however, cannot order the parliamentary party to do something. Unlike the Labour conference, it is not a policy-making body and is attended by representatives rather than delegates mandated by their local associations.
Both William Waldegrave, chief secretary to the Treasury, and David Curry, the local government minister, have ruled out abolishing the cap. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, is also resisting the campaign to weaken restraints on councils' spending powers and ministers are battling now within Cabinet for more money for their departments.
Mrs Shephard, who told BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme, that the negotiations were "particularly vigorous", appears to have won the backing of John Major.
The decision on the fate of the cap will come after next month's Budget. And said Mr Coryton: "Mr Waldegrave might have said he will not abolish the cap, but the decision is not his to make."