Page last updated at 07:39 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 08:39 UK

Say hello to thrifty Dave

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Tory Spring Forum, Cheltenham

Cheltenham racecourse bathed in spring sunshine is a sight to gladden the heart of the most doom-laden cynic.

Tory leader David Cameron
David Cameron talked about thrift and prudence

It would once have been the perfect setting for David Cameron.

The Tory leader used to specialise in uplifting, motivational speeches - telling his party to shake off their gloomy, penny-pinching image and "let the sun shine in".

But the shutters have long since come down on that version of Mr Cameron. The parlous state of the British economy has forced Mr Sunshine to recast himself as Thrifty Dave.

In a speech to his party's spring conference, he warned of "deep, dark clouds over our economy, our society and our whole political system".

Instead of "sharing the proceeds of growth," a Conservative government would be all about "thrift" and "prudence".

Black hole

If ministers want to impress their boss, he said, "they'll have to make their budgets smaller not bigger".

But the question that will dog him from now until polling day - and anyone attending this spring forum will have been left in no doubt the Tories are now in full election mode - is where, precisely, will the axe fall?

Mr Cameron has spoken about cancelling what he sees as wasteful and unnecessary government schemes such as ID cards, the Contact Point child protection database and quangos such as the Regional Development Agencies.

But faced with a £606bn black hole in the public finances over the next four years, he knows that cutting waste will not be nearly enough.

He is far too clever to fall into Labour's trap of setting out detailed public spending cuts now. The only commitment he has made, beyond 2011, is to protect health spending and stick to Labour's target for international aid.

In his speech, he said that the details would all be spelled out before the Tories faced the electorate.

But there is concern among some grassroots Tories that Mr Cameron will not be prepared to make the tough choices needed.

Donna Edmund, Chris Emmett and Lydia Smith
Tory members are relaxed about top rate tax

Rather than a new age of austerity and thrift, they fear he will preside over a period of managed decline, of the kind last seen in the 1960s and seventies.

They want to see a bit of Thatcherite steel - starting with a firm commitment to axe the new 50% top tax rate announced in Wednesday's Budget.

This is a tricky issue for Mr Cameron - as Labour knew when they announced it.

He knows it is popular with a public angry at bankers and City "fat cats" - a YouGov poll for the Sunday People suggested two thirds of voters support it.

That is, in part, why he has said axing it will not be top priority and he will focus instead on taxes that affect the majority of voters, such as upcoming increases in National Insurance.

He threw his critics some red meat in his speech, describing the tax rise as a "pathetic piece of class war posturing" designed to distract attention from the "vast black hole" in the public finances.

But he also stressed, in an interview with BBC One's Politics Show, that although the top rate was not "right for Britain" he could not wave a magic wand and make it disappear overnight.

This may not be enough to appease critics of the tax, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, who wants it axed as soon as possible, and former Chancellor Lord Lawson, who in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, argues that far from rescuing Britain's finances, it will actually force money out of the economy.

Entrepreneurship

The party members I spoke to were relatively relaxed about it.

"I don't think it should be a priority. He should concentrate on the rest of the economy. It was quite a clever move by Labour, but he has just sidestepped it," said Chris Emmett, from Liverpool, visiting the conference with her friends and fellow party members Donna Edmund and Lydia Smith.

Winning post at Cheltenham
The winning post is in sight for Mr Cameron

She also stressed the importance of protecting health and education budgets, while at the same time cutting back on wasteful red tape.

But she added: "I think that we need to open the books first before we make any commitments."

But others were concerned that keeping the 50p top rate would stifle entrepreneurship.

Conservative county councillor Mark Howard told me: "It is a huge problem because we need to raise taxes but the danger is it turns into a tax on enterprise and initiative."

A survey of constituency party chairman, for the World This Weekend, suggested the majority shared that view and wanted to see the 50p rate axed as soon as possible.

There is a sense this weekend that with Labour's Budget getting such a negative press, the party streets ahead in the polls and the smeargate row rumbling on - the Conservatives have turned a corner.

Mr Cameron can certainly see the winning post.

But he is not there yet - and he will not want to spook the horses with scary talk of cutting this or that Whitehall budget. Not this far out from the likely date of a general election.

He prefers instead to speak of a massive culture change across the whole of the public sector, hoping that that will be enough to keep his critics quiet as he prepares to enter the final furlong.



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