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Clarke's cutting remarks fray Tory unity

Tories strengthen poll showing, but splits emerge on key election policies

Cracks in the apparent unity of the shadow ministerial team behind David Cameron showed yesterday even as another poll showed the party edging nearer to an election victory.

As Bob Ainsworth, the Secretary of State for Defence, made an unguarded remark that the general election was expected on 6 May, trouble broke out among Conservatives over three major policies on which they will fight that election.

Mr Cameron promised last week that a Tory government would take a "brazenly elitist" approach to teaching standards by insisting that anyone entering the profession would need at least a 2.2 university degree. Yesterday, Michael Gove, his shadow Schools Secretary, had to duck a question about whether that meant that the TV presenter Carol Vorderman was not sufficiently qualified to be a teacher. Ms Vorderman, who is leading the Tories' maths workforce, left university with a third in engineering.

"Carol is a wonderful and exceptional person," Mr Gove told Sky News' Sunday Live. "You want to bring Carol into the debate, I love Carol and I think she's a wonderful person ... [she] has done a great deal to improve understanding of maths in this country but I always wanted to talk about the importance of raising the bar on the teaching profession."

The most important question facing an incoming government will be tackling the government deficit, which George Osborne and Philip Hammond, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Treasury Secretary, have said that they would reduce more quickly than Labour. But yesterday, the most experienced member of Mr Cameron's frontbench, Ken Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, issued a warning against "damaging and unsupportable" cuts in public spending. "It's no good trying to win brownie points by offering great cuts that are going to have calamitous consequences," the former Chancellor told The Sunday Times. "George and Philip will have co-operative colleagues, but their duty is to make sure we don't, by mistake, make damaging and unsupportable cuts."

A proposal to introduce prison ships to relieve prison overcrowding has also provoked a furious reaction from some Tory MPs. They attribute it to David Cameron's communications chief, Andy Coulson. Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there was "a huge row" going on behind the scenes in the Tory party about the idea. Prison ships would be "an expensive waste of everybody's time", she added.

Alan Duncan, the shadow justice minister, risked raising the hackles of the Tory right recently at a private seminar at Oxford University, when he said that the slogan "prison works" used by Michael Howard, David Cameron's predecessor as Tory leader, was "repulsively simplistic". He argued that "lock 'em up" was "Key Stage 1 Politics", and called for a "rehabilitation revolution". He added: "We want to reduce re-offending by meeting people at the prison gates if possible."

Yesterday, the bookmakers stopped taking bets on the date of the general election after Bob Ainsworth, the Secretary of State for Defence, let slip that he was in no doubt that it would coincide with the local elections on 6 May. He told Sky News that voters "will wake up and rue the day if they wind up with a Conservative government in charge of this country after May 6." His spokesman later said Mr Ainsworth had simply been speculating on what a Tory victory might mean, not announcing when the election would be.

An ICM poll in 97 marginal constituencies, carried out for the News of the World, found that the Tories were likely to win 80 of them. Adding another 49 seats where Labour MPs have smaller majorities, the results suggested that Mr Cameron could expect a majority of 38 as the number of Tory MPs would rise from 193 to 344.