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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Are the Tories ready for a poll?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, at the Conservative Party conference

David and Samantha Cameron on Blackpool's North Pier
Mr Cameron's task on Wednesday is to convince party they can win
Well, they are in a lot better shape than they were at the start of the week.

Talk of a snap general election tends to concentrate politicians' mind - and that is exactly what has happened to the Conservatives in Blackpool.

They have been forced to jab the fast forward button on what has been - by their own admission - a rather leisurely policy review process.

David Cameron had been expecting at least four years to come up with a convincing and distinctive set of policies to present to voters on polling day. Now it seems he may have less than four weeks.

Even if, as seems increasingly unlikely - the current bout of election fever is a cunning double bluff by Gordon Brown to put the wind up the opposition and flush out a few more policy ideas he can later steal - the prime minister may have done the Conservatives a favour.

Middle England

Party activists - and more importantly voters - will come away from this week with a much clearer idea of what Cameron's Britain might actually feel like.

Policy chief Oliver Letwin even claims to have ironed out the apparent contradictions in the party's policy review group recommendations (do they want more airports or fewer? Tough new regulations on the environment or a cut in red tape?).

The announcements on raising the inheritance tax threshold has gained the party some favourable headlines - it is seen as being the sort of stuff that will go down extremely well with voters in Middle England (and with the current dash towards the so-called centre ground you would be forgiven for thinking these are the only voters that mattered).

Liam Fox's attack on Mr Brown's "cynical" visit to Iraq also went over well in the hall - just the sort of all-out attack on Labour the Tories are going to need in the run up to polling day.

There is no room for consensual politics and working with the opposition when there's an election on.

Not everyone is quite with the programme yet. Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Philip Hammond, was rather too candid about the problems facing the party at a fringe meeting on Monday evening.


The public still did not trust the Tories to run the economy or the public services, he said. He was comparing the party to Labour in 1997 - and warning against making rash "unfunded" spending pledges.

But asked if he thought four weeks was enough time to turn things around, he said: "Well I think we have started."

At another fringe meeting on Monday, activists were shown research suggesting voters are ready for a change - but they do not think the Conservatives have changed enough to deliver it.

David Willetts pointed out that Gordon Brown's honeymoon period can not last forever, but he also acknowledged time is a luxury the party cannot afford.

There was a sense at the start of the week that the Conservatives were a little shellshocked.

That followed last week's smash and grab raid on their policies by Gordon Brown - on everything from immigration ("British jobs for British workers") to have-a-go-heroes.

It was so thorough and efficient they might as well have sent every Tory a postcard with "congratulations, you have just been mugged by The Labour Party" on it.

But the party appears to have recovered its composure and seems up for a fight.

Tory members you speak to would still prefer to believe that Mr Brown will lose his nerve and delay an election until May.

While they are only too keen to get stuck into an election battle, many would rather not contemplate it coming next month with opinion polls suggesting they would lose.

David Cameron's job on Wednesday will be to convince them that they can beat Labour - whether Gordon Brown goes for an election now or decides to wait.

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