Conservatives go on war footing

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A new Conservative manifesto is being written, with the party putting itself on a war footing for the next general election, David Cameron revealed on Monday, as the Tories regained a double-digit lead in the polls.

Gordon Brown’s bounce over his handling of the economic crisis was waning, a Populus poll for The Times showed on Monday night.

The Tories have risen four points since early December to 43 per cent. Labour slipped two points to 33, and the Liberal Democrats were down two at 15.

In an interview with the Financial Times, the Conservative leader stressed that his party was “getting ready for a new election at any time”, honing policies to fight an electoral battle that will be dominated by the recession. “A new version of the manifesto is being written – there’s a team of very good people . . . it’s well in production,” he said.

The Tories will not hoard electorally popular policies until the poll is called, Mr Cameron said. “It’s a mistake to think you should keep your best policies up your sleeve until the election.”

Nursing a heavy cold, the Tory leader joked that he had lost his voice promoting the party’s £50bn guarantee scheme for business lending. The opposition needs to reiterate its economic strategy and pledges to get the message through to voters, rather than rely on last-minute surprises, he suggested. “You can’t fatten a pig on market day.”

That Tory message to business and voters would centre on the clear blue water that Mr Cameron was creating on economic policy. He was keen to emphasise his rationale for rejecting a fiscal stimulus, seemingly at odds with most world leaders, in favour of a smaller, more frugal state. Mr Cameron said his politically “very brave” decision to oppose the government’s £20bn fiscal stimulus in November’s pre-Budget report was predicated on the belief the country could not afford it, rather than any opposition to Keynesianism per se. Ratcheting up his rhetoric on the government’s handling of the crisis, Mr Cameron launched a scathing attack on Alistair Darling’s “disgraceful” hints that the PBR projection that the recession would end this year might prove too optimistic. He suggested “some of” the Treasury numbers were “politically motivated – I very much suspect that the forecasts were made to fit the figures [Gordon Brown wanted]”.

The Tory leader’s anger with the prime minister appears genuine. Mr Cameron has been stung by Mr Brown’s lampooning of the Tories’ “do-nothing” approach to the recession. Accusing the government of behaving like “headless chickens . . . confusing activity with action”, he insisted that his party had been “pretty fast out of the box” in adapting its economic strategy to reflect the downturn.

Mr Cameron said he was confident that voters were prepared to accept a central element of that strategy – increasing spending by less than the government’s plans – in spite of the success of past Labour attacks on Tory cuts.

The Tory leader would not spell out where his proposed £5bn reduction in spending increases for this year, designed to fund a tax cut for savers, would be found. But Mr Cameron stressed his confidence that it could be achieved relatively easily, once his party was in power. Labour officials suggest that Mr Cameron is, with some success, targeting floating voters, offering tax breaks to groups such as savings-dependent pensioners. But the Conservative leader flatly rejects this charge.

“One of the differences between me and Labour is I don’t spend my time trying to slice and dice the electorate into different groups and work out how to satisfy them,” he said.

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