The deputy prime minister believes electronic road tolls would persuade more travellers to switch to public transport and wants to include the proposal in the long-awaited Transort Bill, to be unveiled in next month's Queen's Speech. But Downing Street fears that moves to make motorists pay more would trigger a backlash among 'Middle England' voters. Motoring organisations have called the proposal a 'poll tax on wheels'.
A number of radical measures are expected in the Bill, including taxes on workplace parking and congestion charges for entering city and town centres.
One government adviser said:'Sooner or later motorway tolls will happen. Everyone accepts it is the only way to prevet gridlock. But the government also knows it will go down very badly with Mondeo man. So the argument is between those who want to confront the problem now and those who want to postpone legislation until the technology is proven.
A recent poll found that 69% of the public opposed the introduction of tolls. The system being proposed would force motorists to install electronic tags in their cars or risk paying a fine.
The announcement of a pilot scheme on the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow has already sparked outraged in Scotland. First minister Donald Dewar plans to put his own radical transport Bill to the Scottish parliament early next year.