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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 10:37 GMT
Tories pushing for election gains
David Cameron and William Hague
Weekend speakers include David Cameron and William Hague
The Welsh Conservative conference opens on Saturday with the party optimistic about its chances in May's assembly elections.

Party sources have told the BBC that internal party polls suggest that they are on course for significant gains.

And they also indicate that for the first time the assembly campaign will be "properly funded".

The conference has been designed to showcase Conservative candidates and to launch some flagship initiatives.

These include a 100 per household rebate on council tax for pensioners, which will cost 31m.

Speakers at the conference today include Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne.

The BBC understands that the assembly elections have been given a high priority by the party with the Conservatives commissioning their first private polls in Wales since the 1960's.

Party strategists are confident of gaining Cardiff North from Labour and the party will hope to take the assembly seats in Clwyd West and Preseli Pembrokeshire where it gained parliamentary seats in 2005.

Other target seats include the new Aberconwy constituency and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire where the party faces three way fights with Labour and Plaid Cymru.

Nick Bourne and Welsh Conservative party logo
We are looking forward to a bright future for Wales, not painting a dark, inaccurate picture of the past as Labour has done
Nick Bourne, Welsh Conservative leader

It also hopes to take the Vale of Glamorgan, where the party controlled the local authority until recently.

The party is also claiming that it has an outside chance of making "surprise gains" in constituencies such as Delyn and agriculture minister Carwyn Jones' seat of Bridgend.

It's understood that the party is limiting campaigning visits by Westminster shadow cabinet members in an attempt to "show its Welsh face to the voters" although the party leader David Cameron will address the conference.

Under the slogan "A new team for Wales" the party will be setting out its key themes for the assembly election with debates on health, education, culture and the environment to be held today.

The party is expected to stress the need for greater choice in public services and highlight what it claims are disparities between the standards of some public services in Wales and England.

More than 400 representatives have registered to attend the conference - the largest number for many years according to party organisers.

All the political parties, including the Tories, are seeking to find practical, easily understood policies to demonstrate the difference they could make if successful in May's poll.

In recent history, Conservatives have been on the back foot in Wales

As delegates arrive in Cardiff for their conference Conservative prospects appear brighter than they have been for a very long time at a UK level.

Members hope the gradual recovery in Welsh Tory fortunes will accelerate in the Welsh assembly elections.

The party has gone from having no Welsh MPs in 1997 to now having three Members of Parliament and 11 Assembly Members.

Mr Bourne has promised to use the conference to highlight the positive difference his party could make to Wales.

It follows last week's Welsh Labour conference warnings that voter apathy could lead to a Tory-led "nightmare alliance" running the country.

Mr Bourne has attacked Mr Morgan for describing Conservative leader David Cameron as merely a smooth spin doctor "who has never had a proper job".

Concentrated

He said: "Welsh Conservatives will fight the election on our strengths, our record, our policies and our vision for Wales.

"We are looking forward to a bright future for Wales, not painting a dark, inaccurate picture of the past as Labour has done."

The Tories intend to present themselves as a positive alternative government in Wales while casting Labour as a negative party which has run out of ideas.

In recent history, Conservatives have been on the back foot in Wales and you could be forgiven for believing they had never been a real political force in these parts.

Look a little bit further back in time though, to 1983, and you see a party with 14 Welsh MPs and 31% of the Welsh vote.

In that general election Labour mustered 37.5% of Welsh votes, as a post-Falklands conflict Margaret Thatcher went head-to-head with Labour leader Michael Foot.

From then on it was a story of Tory decline in Wales, culminating in a wipe-out of all Welsh Conservative MPs in 1997, and the Tories fell to under 20% of the vote.

But while the Conservatives remained the second most popular party in Wales, it suffered because of the way its support was spread, rather than concentrated in particular areas.

Strangely enough, it was devolved politics and proportional representation (PR), both of which many Conservatives had fought, that offered the party a life line.

With nearly all of its AMs elected under a PR system in 1999 and 2003, Cardiff Bay provided the party with a stage that helped prevent it from disappearing without trace in Wales.

More than a few Welsh Conservatives must be daring to hope more Welsh voters will be prepared to give them a chance


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