David Cameron is facing a revolt by senior members of his Shadow Cabinet over plans to impose sweeping cuts in their departmental budgets if they win the general election.
Some frontbenchers are furious that Mr Cameron has guaranteed that the £100bn-a-year budget for the National Health Service will rise by more than inflation every year, while most other areas of spending will be cut to fill the huge hole in the public finances the Tories would inherit.
The simmering anger of shadow ministers boiled over yesterday when Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, suggested that his colleagues in a Cameron cabinet would all have to cut their budgets by 10 per cent while his would continue to grow each year.
His colleagues were said to be "seething" and "furious" about his comments. Mr Lansley, who was accused of making a similar gaffe last year, is said to have been warned yesterday that one more mistake could result in him being fired by Mr Cameron.
After his remarks sparked a major row with Labour and were seized on by Gordon Brown, Mr Lansley later clarified them. He claimed he was talking about the 10 per cent cuts implied by Labour's spending programme, not the Tories' proposals.
Some Tory frontbenchers are dismayed that the health budget has been ring-fenced by Mr Cameron and the shadow Chancellor George Osborne. They say it will leave other vital budgets such as law and order and defence facing deep cuts and could scupper the Tories' flagship scheme to set up a new generation of state-funded schools.
Mr Cameron wants to head off Labour warnings about "Tory NHS cuts" at the next election and believes that the ageing population and technological advances mean that spending must rise in real terms.
The only other area guaranteed to be given an increase in funding under a Tory government would be international development. The Tories would stick to Labour's commitment to raise the share of gross national product devoted to aid to 0.7 per cent by 2013.
One Tory insider told The Independent: "Other frontbenchers are realising that they are going to have to make some very painful and unpopular cuts. They are starting to ask why the NHS should be such a special case. Lansley will have no incentive to make savings and everyone else will have to pay the price."
There is also resentment in Tory circles at Mr Lansley's status as an "untouchable" who has been guaranteed his position as health secretary in Mr Cameron's first cabinet. One shadow minister said: "This is a debacle. He [Mr Lansley] has somehow managed to turn a story about Labour cuts into one about Tory cuts. That takes some doing."
Other frontbenchers blamed the confusion over a decision taken by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne to keep the Tories' spending plans deliberately vague to limit Labour's scope to accuse them of planning cuts. They said the strategy had backfired and it would be better to be more open.
Mr Lansley told BBC Radio 4 yesterday that while the health budget would increase, "that does mean over three years after 2011, a 10 per cent reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other departments." He added: "Unfortunately, what this means is there is going to be very powerful spending constraint elsewhere across government."
His comments dominated Prime Minister's Questions and allowed Labour MPs to rally strongly behind Mr Brown, who said: "Let us have a debate about the choice that really does exist in the country between a Conservative Party that now wants to cut, even at a time of recession, into our basic public services and a Labour Party that wants to invest in them."
But Mr Cameron told the Prime Minister: "The next election, when you have the guts to call it, won't be about Labour investment versus Tory cuts, it is going to be an election about the mismanagement of the public finances, the appalling deficit you have left and your plan for cuts."
Tory officials later issued figures showing that Mr Brown's own spending plans would mean "Labour cuts" of 10 per cent when inflation, debt interest and benefit rises were taken into account.
Mr Lansley admitted: "Perhaps I should have been clearer." But he insisted that he was talking about Labour's programme, not his own party's. He said the NHS would have to find savings under a Tory government.
Under pressure: Senior Tories feeling the squeeze
Job: Shadow Schools Secretary
Budget prospects: Dodgy
Would match Labour's spending in the current financial year, but not from 2010-11 onwards
Cuts danger **
Job: Shadow Home Secretary
Budget prospects: Poor.
Not protected. Would face a squeeze on law and order spending – including police – normally a Tory priority area
Cuts danger ****
Job: Shadow Defence Secretary
Budget prospects: Bad.
Like education, not protected from 2010-11. Big projects at risk. Grief for defence chiefs and Tory traditionalists
Cuts danger ****Reuse content