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Prospect of early election recedes as Cameron enjoys conference coup

By Andrew Grice

The prospect of Gordon Brown calling an immediate general election has receded as David Cameron brought a successful Tory conference to a close by staking his claim as a prime minister-in-waiting.

Mr Brown will make a final decision after studying opinion polls that will be published over the next few days. But his inner circle is understood to have become more cautious about an election after studying Labour's private polling in key marginal seats which is described as "patchy and extremely tight".

Labour strategists believe their lead in the polls is likely to be dented by the Tories' pledge to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m. If Mr Brown pulls back from an election, he will be accused of running scared by the Tories after allowing speculation to mount and making contingency plans to announce, next week, a poll for 1 November. A three-year spending programme and pre-Budget report may still be presented on Monday, nine days earlier than planned, even if the election is off.

Some Brown allies argue that it would be better to suffer a short-term embarrassment than rush into an election after just 100 days as Prime Minister without being sure of winning a firm mandate. They are confident the Tories' tax and spending plans will unravel, but say it would be better to "demolish" them over months rather than weeks.

If the election is postponed, it would be a coup for Mr Cameron. Although he challenged Mr Brown yesterday to "go ahead and call that election", Tory sources admitted privately that their real mission in Blackpool this week was to stop an immediate poll.

Mr Cameron made a highly personal appeal to voters over the head of his party as he spoke quietly and dramatically for 70 minutes without a script to sketch out a new version of One Nation Conservatism which he billed as "modern Conservative change".

After the threat of an election united his party behind him, Mr Cameron sought to appeal to both wings of it. He warned that the Tories had to change to meet the challenges of a "new world" and that he would not drop his crusade on the environment, but also pleased Tory traditionalists by calling for tougher controls on immigration, "zero tolerance" of crime, greater discipline in schools and a referendum on the proposed European Union treaty.

In his closing section, the Eton-educated leader tried to head off Labour sniping at his privileged background. Conceding that voters wanted to know more about him with a possible election looming, he said: "People want to know are you really up for it? Do you have what it takes? Are you tough enough and strong enough to make those decisions? And I answer unreservedly: yes.

"I can't give you some hard luck story. I'm the son of a magistrate and a stockbroker but the great privilege of my upbringing wasn't the wealth, it was the warmth, it was the family. And yes I went to a fantastic school and I'm not embarrassed about that because I had a great education and I know what a great education means. And knowing what a great education means there is a better chance of getting it for all of our children which is absolutely what I want in this country."

Although he struck an optimistic tone about Britain's future, he did not omit stinging attacks on Mr Brown, deriding his "cynicism" and urging him to "stop wasting money on pointless gimmicks".

There were no new policy commitments but Mr Cameron struck a hard line on welfare reform, saying that the Tories would implement US-style schemes to get the unemployed back to work. "We will say to people that if you are offered a job and it's a fair job and one that you can do and you refuse it you shouldn't get any welfare," he said.

The best welfare system of all was called the family, he said, renewing his commitment to reward marriage through the tax system. On health, Mr Cameron promised to launch a campaign to save district general hospitals from the threat of closure under Labour's plans to reconfigure the service.

He said that Britain had benefited immeasurably from immigration but added: "We do have recognise the pressures that can be put on public services, schools and hospitals and housing if immigration in unlimited." He said his party must talk about immigration in a "reasonable, sensible and humane way."

Mr Cameron made clear he would reject the advice of Tory critics who opposed his campaign on green issues. "This party never wants to punish or hold back the aspirations of people who want to get on in life and have a good life. And what we must be is the party of sensible, Green leadership, and that is exactly what we are going to stay," he said.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, there was coded criticism of America's approach: "I think that if we have learnt anything over the last five years, it's that you cannot drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet." He said Afghanistan would be his top priority, adding: "Our troops are incredibly brave but my worry is that we could win the military campaign but start to lose the country."

He also accused the Government of breaking the covenant under which the armed forces served the nation, demanding an expansion of the Army and better conditions for servicemen including housing and provision for when they were injured.

He summarised his pitch for whenever the election comes, as: "Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger. And making our country greener and safer."

Around the stage in 70 minutes

It was a gamble but it worked. David Cameron delivered his 70-minute speech containing 8,837 words as he walked around the stage with only occasional glances at notes on a table during bursts of applause.

At the start, it seemed he was trying to repeat the address which wowed the Tory faithful in the same hall two years ago and made him the front-runner in the party's leadership contest. His 2005 speech was limited to 15 minutes and he memorised it.

In fact, the real model for yesterday's remarkable feat was the speech he made in London at the launch of his leadership campaign the week before his Blackpool one.

Aides were shocked when he told them at the weekend that, facing such a difficult speech, he was considering making it without a script. No one had dared suggest it in case he crashed. It was his idea. But his inner circle backed his gamble, on the ground that he looks at his most convincing when he speaks "from the heart". After yesterday's speech, he asked aides what Westminster journalists made of it. The verdict was positive.

Irish Independent


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