Page last updated at 08:29 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Tory leader David Cameron faces big decision in 2010

By James Landale
Deputy political editor, BBC News

For most of us, at this time of year, our insides are bloated with turkey, mince pies and brandy butter - David Cameron's stomach, however, is more likely to be rumbling with the gentle flutter of butterflies.

Conservative leader David Cameron
Is David Cameron all about sunshine or gloom?

And that is because, after four years leading the Conservative Party, next year, for him, is the only one that matters.

In a few months he will be either hero or zero. He will either have won the general election or wasted the best chance the Tories have had to win power for a decade.

On his leadership, the future hangs. So a few nerves would be forgivable.

The last twelve months have been reasonable but not unblemished.

Mr Cameron made the best he could of the expenses scandal, balancing ruthless dispatch of the worst offenders with prompt proposals for reform.

He managed to keep the economic debate on his favoured territory of cutting the deficit. But he also unsettled his party by appearing to renege on a promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and by appearing to impose favoured candidates on provincial party leaderships, the now infamous "Turnip Taliban".

Horrified voters

But his biggest failure of last year remains his biggest challenge for the next - and that is to answer the nagging question posed by voters and Tory members alike - namely what would a Conservative government led by David Cameron stand for? What would it do?

This doubt is illustrated in opinion polls that repeatedly show that while many voters have become disillusioned with Labour, many have yet to embrace the Tories.

This uncertainty is reflected in David Cameron's leadership itself.

In the early years, he cuddled huskies, talked about poverty and promised to protect the public services, ignoring the traditional Tory tunes of crime, immigration and Europe.

But then earlier this year he rebranded himself as Mr Austerity - the only leader ready to face up to the harsh spending cuts needed to reduce the deficit and save the economy.

The plan was that not only would the bond markets be reassured, the voters would also be content to swallow the painful but necessary Tory medicine.

But some voters were horrified, and others confused.

Broken society

Were the Tories promising sunshine or gloom?

Critics accused them of relishing spending cuts with ideological glee.

Even some Tories thought the belt-tightening had been laid on too thick.

The polls narrowed, and pulses at Tory HQ quickened.

So this new year, the Conservatives are going to temper last year's austerity with a little sun-filled optimism.

Setting himself up as the new Ian Dury, Mr Cameron has written that there are "reasons to be cheerful" despite the economic and meterological gloom.

His challenge is how to mix the grim, economic realism of spending cuts with a positive message about how the Tories might change Britain.

Soon there will be a flood of policy announcements, and a new advertising campaign.

The aim will be to persuade voters that the Tories are about more than just cutting the deficit, that they still have policies to reform the public services, and welfare state.

The pitch, broadly, will be that spending cuts will restore the growth that can help mend what David Cameron calls Britain's broken society.

Get that right and Mr Cameron might just win the election.

Get it wrong, and - well, let's just say Mr Cameron will have a lot more time to spend with his family next Christmas.

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