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VAT on fuel disturbs the Tory grassroots: Conservative chairman remains in spotlight to launch agenda for Bournemouth conference with selected constituency motions

DEFENCE cuts and higher taxes - especially VAT on fuel - are still provoking heavy protests from the Tory grassroots, motions for next month's party conference published yesterday reveal.

Equally trenchant criticism has surfaced in Conservative constituency association resolutions on party policy and organisation, which castigate the Government for ignoring the views of local associations and for inept management of policy and legislation.

The Bournemouth conference - chaired this year by William Stuttaford, president of the National Union, the party's voluntary wing - has stuck to convention by selecting only the blander motions to put to the vote. But the rank and file has seized the opportunity to voice its anxieties, a number of which will spill over on to the conference floor.

The submissions reveal a clear split over local government reorganisation, with motions divided between those strongly backing unitary authorities and those concerned by the costs and the 'internal divisions in the party' caused by the Local Government Commission review.

Law and order attracted the greatest number of motions - 214 out of the 1,160 submitted - prompting organisers to fix an extended debate on home affairs. Alongside traditional 'hanging and flogging' motions and calls for punishments to fit the crime, there is substantial support for identity cards as a means to fight crime and illegal immigration.

The rank and file appears to be lagging behind the national leadership on Northern Ireland, however. Many of the motions decline to back the Downing Street Declaration while expressly calling on the Government to 'abandon the 15-year search for devolution'. Only one congratulates the Government on the progress made towards a settlement.

Jeremy Hanley, the party chairman, said that the motions had been put down before the IRA ceasefire.

Likewise set down for an extended debate, government policy on the economy and taxation has spawned repeated protests over tax rises and VAT on fuel, with many submissions urging the Chancellor to peg the tax at 8 per cent. The angst is typified by a motion from the North Norfolk association which says: 'This conference urges the Government to review its decision to apply VAT at 17.5 per cent from April 1995, in view of the constant complaints that all party workers have received from the electorate of all political persuasions.'

The criticisms were seized on by Labour, which is campaigning against the second phase of the tax and which will exploit the dissatisfaction at its Blackpool conference the preceding week.

The submissions on party policy and organisation reveal a rank and file fed up with what it views as disloyalty by Cabinet ministers and outspoken backbenchers. But it equally levels criticism at the Government for both failing to consult and research sufficiently before presenting policy or parliamentary bills to a hostile press, and for modifying them.

For the first time since the election, however, John Major appears to have received something approaching a vote of confidence on Europe, which is relegated to a standard length debate this year.

Leading article, page 11