The Prime Minister intervened to defuse the row in the Cabinet over the proposals, which some ministers feared would create a national police force with too little democratic control. But ministerial sources said Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, who has been resisting Mr Clarke's plans, is prepared to accept a compromise.
Another opponent, William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for the Citizen's Charter, is fighting an uphill battle within the Cabinet for his own White Paper on more open government, and is reluctant to be seen to be holding up Mr Clarke's plans.
David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales, and Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, are against adopting the strategy. But Mr Clarke has won wider support in Cabinet, including that of John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, and Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor. The Home Secretary is expected to proceed in the spring with proposals for merging the 43 police forces in England and Wales into about 20 or 25. They would be funded directly by the Home Office. The forces currently receive 90 per cent of their funding from Whitehall and raise about 10 per cent in local taxation.
The changes would mean the abolition of many local authority controls, including police committees of elected councillors and at least 20 chief constables and their bureaucracies. To administer the regional forces, Mr Clarke is considering replacing elected police committees with directly appointed businessmen, magistrates, councillors and others.
The plans would be vehemently opposed by Labour, but welcomed by many Tory MPs, who have criticised left-wing control over the police. However, some leading Tory backbenchers believe they will not go far enough. Sir John Wheeler, former chairman of the cross-party Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, urged Mr Clarke to adopt the existing regional crime squad boundaries by creating nine regional forces. He said a compromise structure based on 25 forces would be 'tinkering'.
A total of 24 national policing functions had been established, he said, including a national intelligence service, the police staff college and the football intelligence unit for dealing with soccer hooligans. 'I would add the Special Branch to that list - it is ludicrous that there are 52 special branches (including Scotland) in the UK.'
The Sheehy inquiry into police pay and responsibilities is said to be considering recommending a system of performance related pay and the end of the index-linked formula which has given all officers an annual rise. Under a merit scheme, those who are seen to have performed poorly would have minimal increases. The inquiry team, which is not due to report until May, may also recommend abolishing a number of ranks to create a more streamlined management structure.