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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Cameron sets Tories on journey of change
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter, at the Conservative spring conference

"The fire of hope is burning bright once again."

In a rhetorical flourish reminiscent of Tony Blair, David Cameron wrapped up his first major speech as Conservative leader.

Although he remained rooted behind a lectern at Manchester's International Convention Centre - not roaming the stage as he had during his leadership bid - Mr Cameron still managed to strike a visionary note as he spoke about trusting people, sharing responsibility and "breaking down the barriers" holding Britain back.

David Cameron addresses the Tory spring conference in Manchester
The Tories want to become a party that represents the whole country
Above his head, as he addressed activists, a single word was projected on to a leafy, environmentally-friendly background in large white letters: CHANGE.

It was as if the Conservatives, having tried calling their members "the nasty party", were now resorting to subliminal advertising in an effort to get them to change their ways.

Mr Cameron mentioned change a total of 27 times during his speech.

One conference session on Friday was even entitled, in a very New Labour turn of phrase, "Be the Change".

Having moved the party closer to Labour in key policy areas such as education, he needs to differentiate it in other ways.

He badly wants the Conservatives to be seen as optimistic and forward-looking, in contrast to a tired, backward-looking Labour Party.

Speaker after speaker said the Tories were the party of hope and optimism, compared to the centralised, bureaucratic, controlling and - crucially - out of date Labour Party.

In addition to change, the words optimism and hope (but not Conservative) were projected on to the conference hall stage.

Broader appeal

Mr Cameron also wants the Tories to be seen as the party of the environment, pledging in his keynote speech to deliver a "new green revolution" and taunting his expected rival at the next general election, Gordon Brown, for not talking about the subject enough.

He wants to broaden the party's appeal beyond its traditional base in the suburbs and shires.

David Cameron at the Tory spring conference in Manchester
The party has damped down expectations for the local elections
That was why the party was in Manchester for its spring conference, officials said, as opposed to a more traditional seaside venue.

Mr Cameron says he is determined to win back power in Britain's cities, where outside London and smaller cities such as Coventry, the party has been largely reduced to a fringe player.

There are no Conservative councillors in Manchester, a city it used to control, and it is a similar story in other northern cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle.

The party knows it is going to be a long, hard slog to claw its way back.

Low expectations

And it is busy damping down expectations of its performance in 4 May's local elections - the first major electoral test of Mr Cameron's leadership.

"No-one is expecting us to make stupendous gains," said party chairman Francis Maude, out canvassing in Sale. part of Conservative-controlled Trafford Council, on Friday.

"No-one should have huge expectations, but we are working very hard."

You may not succeed at first but it doesn't mean we were wrong to try
Conservative chairman Francis Maude
The BBC News website hitched a lift back from Sale on one of the party's buses and the mood was jolly, with activists looking forward to a buffet supper as a reward for their efforts; they had handed out thousands of leaflets and secured new support from a total of 800 people.

The problem, and it is one shared by all political parties, is that on a normal blustery Friday afternoon in Sale - without party activists from all around the country pitching in - it would probably have been a different story.

Tory candidate Ralph Ellerton admitted it was sometimes a struggle to motivate the troops.

If they could get just one councillor elected to the city council then it would be a start, he said.

Invitation to members

Mr Maude agrees that the Conservatives do not necessarily have to win back support in the inner cities to form the next government.

But, he insists, the Tories want to be a party that represents the whole country and that means the inner cities - areas the Tories say have been abandoned by Labour.

"You may not succeed at first but it doesn't mean we were wrong to try. And if we don't win at first we will back next year and the year after that," he told activists as he opened Saturday morning's session.

The conference ended on a surreal note with the unexpected arrival of the United Kingdom Independence Party in an armoured car, in the latest round in its ongoing feud with the Tories.

The vehicle represented UKIP "parking its tanks on Mr Cameron's lawn", said UKIP MEP Nigel Farage.

But in a strange way, they might have done Mr Cameron a favour.

As a sign that the Conservatives really are changing, UKIP members in union jack hats - like the ghosts of Tory conferences past - protesting against Mr Cameron's "Blue Labour" party could hardly have worked better.

Whether the Tory leader can take every one of his party's members with him on his journey of change - as he invited them to do in his big conference speech - remains to be seen.

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