Downing Street is facing a growing rebellion among grass roots Tories, with plans for sweeping school reforms and regional devolution fuelling discontent.
George Osborne, the chancellor, announced in his Budget this month that all state schools in England would be converted to academies to “set [them] free from local education bureaucracy”.
But the change is not popular with local government. A cross-party group of council leaders set out their opposition in a letter to the Observer newspaper on Sunday.
Leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat groups within the Local Government Association warned that Mr Osborne’s announcement — and the white paper launched by education secretary Nicky Morgan last week — had caused “enormous concern among councillors across the political spectrum”.
“The wholesale removal of democratically elected councils from all aspects of local education, to be replaced by unelected and remote civil servants, has rightly raised serious questions around local needs and accountability, while the proposed removal of parent governors will further weaken vital local voices in our schools,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by David Hodge, leader of the LGA’s Conservative group, as well as Nick Forbes, the Labour group leader, and Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Liberal Democrat group leader.
The growing dissatisfaction is the latest indication that Mr Osborne’s Budget has proved troublesome for his party.
The government performed a series of u-turns last-week in the face of backbencher unrest, cancelling £4bn of welfare cuts, backing down on value added tax on sanitary products and solar panels, and watering down an attempt to make steep cuts to funding for opposition parties.
Downing Street is also facing a grass roots rebellion over Mr Osborne’s “devolution revolution”, which has run into trouble after a series of councils rejected Westminster’s offer to devolve greater powers to them.
Some Conservative-led councils are unhappy about the chancellor’s insistence that local devolution deals should include an elected mayor.
Both the academies plan and the creation of elected mayors would undermine the powers of councils, particularly county councils, the majority of which are under Tory control, critics say.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group, a rightwing think-tank, warned this weekend that Mr Osborne’s Budget “marks a clear break with the Conservative party’s previous commitment to localism”. Mr Osborne should explain why such a significant shift had not been included in the election manifesto last year, he said.
Teaching unions have added their voice to the opposition to the academies plan: the National Union of Teachers voted on Saturday to ballot for strike action over the proposals. There is no evidence that academy status is associated with improved performance, the NUT says.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to work with teachers to block the academies plan.
The government insists it will proceed.
Addressing a teaching conference this weekend, Ms Morgan argued that turning all schools into academies would give teachers “the opportunity to step up and make the decisions that will shape the future of schools”.
Nick Gibb, schools minister, said it would give more autonomy to successful headteachers who would be able to use their expertise to reform weaker schools.
One Conservative aide defended the plans, saying they aimed to hand power to local communities.
“You can’t get much more devolved than giving power to the individual school,” he said. “We are putting the people who know best into the driving seat. And the devolution offer is voluntary, councils are not compelled to take part. If they don’t want to take part, nobody is forcing them to do so.”
Other government policies such as allowing councils to keep business rates would also empower local areas, he added.