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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 October 2006, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Cameron's social agenda
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

David Cameron has left no room for doubt or debate, he will not be offering a policy of Tory tax cuts any time soon - his big idea is "social responsibility".

David Cameron and family
Mr Cameron may get through conference on charisma alone

In his opening speech to his annual conference, he delivered a pretty stinging rebuke to those in his party - John Redwood and Lord Norman Tebbit in particular - who have led demands for a tax-cutting agenda.

Speaking about past Tory mistakes, he declared: "While people wanted, more than anything, stability and low mortgage rates, the first thing we talked about was tax cuts".

Instead, he insisted: "social responsibility - that is the essence of liberal Conservatism. That is the idea I want us to explain this week".

It is not a message that will go down too well with those Tories who believe the party should be about low taxes as much as anything else.

There have been growing demands for their leader to use his two speeches this week to offer some substance over style and, particularly, some heavyweight policies.

Some believe offering a few billion pounds worth of tax cuts would be a good start.

It is the dilemma Mr Cameron is currently caught in and which will only become sharper as the general election draws closer.


Does he refuse to budge and, as a result, see an increase in internal division and sliding poll ratings?

Or does he hold firm, let Labour implode - he hopes - and finally come up with an election-winning manifesto of thought-through policies?

Clearly there are real dangers in allowing the "all style no substance" tag to take a hold with the electorate.

If it worms its way into the collective consciousness it will be near impossible to shift or overlay and could ultimately prove fatal.

Even when he does develop policies it may be too late and voters may have stopped listening - particularly if prime minister Gordon Brown, should it be him, is offering his own substantial, fresh-looking programme.


But Mr Cameron believes he needs to get the right policies and, with the economy being the single most important area, is only repeating the phrase every leader and chancellor has used in history - that he will not try to make a budget now for an election that will not happen for another two or three years.

Cherie and Tony Blair in 1994
Tony Blair looked like a winner to Labour in 1994

In Mr Cameron's mind, however, there are real advantages in waiting and, as he repeats, "building the foundations" .

For a start, if he comes up with substantial, vote-winning policies now he will simply have to stand by as the other parties sift through them, stealing the bits they find most attractive and rubbishing what's left.

He will end up with a manifesto looking more like the left-overs from a car boot sale.

His supporters believe this is particularly true at the moment when, they believe, Labour and the government is virtually paralysed by the leadership issue.

The Tony Blair/Gordon Brown soap opera is entering its last and by far its most dramatic and gripping act.


The Conservatives, it is argued, should simply let them get on with it and do nothing to distract voters' eyes from, what they claim is a full-blown farce.

Suddenly announcing a big tax policy now would hand the government something to get their teeth into and turn the public's eyes away from what they are doing, or not doing.

It would also throw the divisions between Mr Cameron's modernisers and the old-style Tories into sharp focus.

This is a real chance to show Blair, Brown, Reid et al that their days are numbered
John, Haslemere, Surrey

At the same time, if he can hold his nerve, he believes he may be able to spring a few policy surprises on the government and voters that will prove to be both popular and unassailable.

So, Mr Cameron's message was: "I want us to lay the foundations this week. That's not about individual policies . It is about a vision of the Britain we want to see".

And that is what he has promised in more detail in his big end-of-conference speech on Wednesday.

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