David Cameron is being warned today by his own MPs that he must "refresh and revive" the optimism and "sunshine" that won him the Conservative leadership or risk losing the next election.
The call by the 2020 group of Tory MPs is echoed by Jesse Norman, the ringleader of the rebellion over Lords reform, who said British people are "crying out for leadership" and that some voters think "maybe these guys aren't on our side".
The Prime Minister's problems intensified last night as a new opinion poll showed voters preferred Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson to him. The Opinium survey for The Observer gave the London Mayor a net plus-30-per-cent approval rating compared with minus 21 per cent for the Prime Minister, while Mr Miliband's rose to minus 10 per cent following last week's Labour Party conference. A YouGov survey of voting intentions in The Sunday Times put Labour at 45 per cent, the Tories at 31 and the Lib Dems on 8 – a share that would return Labour to power with an estimated majority of 144 seats.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Norman, a rising star whose rebellion in July excluded him from a ministerial post in last month's reshuffle, said Mr Cameron had to balance the hard message of austerity with "hope and possibility".
Senior Tories are scrambling to declare the centre ground has not been deserted by Mr Cameron, following the Labour leader's speech which seized the mantle of One Nation for his party. But Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, risked retoxifying the Tory party when he called for the abortion limit to be halved to 12 weeks – overshadowing the start of the Tory conference in Birmingham.
The climate change minister Greg Barker, chairman of the 2020 group of modernisers who make up about 25 per cent of the parliamentary party, told The IoS: "As we reach the halfway mark in Parliament, and the general election comes into view, people will be focused on the progressive centre ground of British politics, which is where general elections are won. As William Hague said, that is the ground that David Cameron staked out and we will not surrender it. This is not a small faction in the party, but a real, broad movement determined not only to remain on that ground, but actually refresh and revive the agenda that David Cameron inhabited in opposition and took into government."
The 2020 group of about 80 MPs are drawn from different intakes, but Mr Barker said: "All are united in having an optimistic outlook, ambitious for the country, ambitious for the party, and determined to retain the centre ground that David Cameron made his own."
In an attempt to seize back the agenda from the right, the 2020 group is conducting four commissions to set out a policy agenda for the election after next. George Freeman is overseeing the Economic Commission; Nadhim Zahawi the Governance Commission; Claire Perry, the co-chairman of 2020, is conducting a commission on the Green Economy; and Damian Hinds and Andrea Leadsom are overseeing the Opportunity Society.
Mr Cameron famously used his first conference speech as leader, in 2006, to proclaim "Let sunshine win the day" as he set out a vision for centrist policies on civic society, the environment and the NHS. Yet following the economic crash of 2008, he and George Osborne have stuck to a hardline agenda of economic austerity, with little optimism.
There is also dismay among some centrist Tory MPs at the progress of right-wingers such as Chris Grayling in the reshuffle.
In his interview, Mr Norman says: "The real issue in British politics is who has the authority and the credibility to speak to the British people about how you get through the current mess. I think the British people are crying out for leadership. One senses a kind of complacency in some parts of the party about Ed Miliband being a secret weapon for the Tories. I think it would be a great mistake to imagine that could be the case."
In an attempt to fend off criticism, the Prime Minister used an article for the Daily Mail yesterday to insist he was not tacking to the right. A senior Tory backbencher from the right of the party said: "Some have made the mistake of saying he has to persist in talking above the heads of the party, to the country, but conference is an important opportunity for David Cameron to talk to the party."
Last night the Tories announced a new cap on rail fares for 2013 and a third consecutive council-tax freeze for 2013-14, which the party said would save the average family £72 a year.
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