Conservative conference: Cameron upbeat despite mounting pressures

David Cameron speaking at 2011 Conservative conference The Conservatives want to focus on delivery and supporting aspiration

David Cameron faces some blustery headwinds as he sets out for Birmingham and his party conference this weekend.

The economy is struggling, his party is behind in the polls and his MPs restive.

The Spectator front page has "Cameron in Freefall".

The Sun says voters liken him to a snake, although Downing Street aides point out the other options in the survey included a poodle and a lizard.

At least the expectations for the Conservative conference are low.

In Manchester Ed Miliband did much to stake his claim to be a serious contender for the top job. But Tory strategists say it will not fundamentally alter their plans to attack the Labour leader for a lack of alternative economic policies.

A senior Tory source pointed out that while Mr Miliband's note-free delivery may have been impressive, the speech did not say how a future Labour government would tackle the deficit.

Downing Street insiders believe this week gives them an opportunity to contrast their programme in government with a Labour party which opposes cuts but does not explain what it would do to get the country through the economic crisis.

Delivery theme

I understand the slogan for this Tory conference will be Britain can Deliver. A senior source said the focus will be on aspiration, with the theme that the Conservatives are on the side of people who work hard and want to get on.

The message will be that this is a government of real substance, taking tough decisions but driving through changes to welfare and education which are needed for the long-term.

But some in the party have criticised what they see as a lack of grip at No 10 and Labour's upbeat conference does increase the pressure on David Cameron to give a clear sense of direction and leadership.

Ahead of the conference, former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, long seen as a standard bearer for the right of the party, urged Mr Cameron to reconnect with core supporters.

Europe

His call for a renegotiated relationship with Europe and a referendum reflect the views of many Tories who want the prime minister to use the eurozone crisis to seize back powers.

Some fear the damage UK Independence Party could inflict in key seats unless the Tories offer a referendum.

Mr Cameron has hinted at a possible referendum after the next election and is due to make a big speech on Europe shortly. But that may not be enough to prevent Europe once again haunting the Tory conference.

The big problem for the prime minister is the economy still struggling to pull out of recession. Many Tories want him to be far bolder in stripping away regulations and getting infrastructure projects moving.

Some blame their Lib Dem coalition partners for watering down rules on hiring and firing. Others are annoyed at the chancellor for the string of mistakes in the Budget on pasties, charities and caravans which made them look incompetent.

The fiasco over the West Coast franchise has hardly helped the government's reputation and it has emboldened campaigners opposed to the HS2 high speed rail project who are stepping up demands for a rethink.

Boris factor

And then there is Boris Johnson.

The mayor of London has accused the government of inertia in putting off decisions on airport expansion in the south east of England until after the next election, and said the timetable sets a course for economic catastrophe.

Mr Cameron had lunch at Chequers with his old friend and rival this week. But nothing will stop Boris speaking his mind - that is part of his appeal.

With victory in the London mayoral elections under his belt and the Olympics seen as a personal triumph, Boris has every chance of outshining his party leader.

Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip under a cloud after his clash with police in Downing Street, will stay away - even though the conference is just up the road from his constituency.

The media will be denied the endless opportunities to hurl embarrassing questions about plebs. But senior ministers know it has set back their efforts to shake off the charge that they are a party of out-of-touch toffs.

Tory strategists believe there are grounds for some cautious optimism on the economy, with more jobs being created and interest rates low.

I am told the prime minister is in positive mood and up for the challenge. One thing he can be sure of this week is the attention of the media - but he may find some discordant voices make it hard for him to ensure his message is heard.

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