David Cameron will make his first appearance as party leader at a Conservative national conference today, amid a crisis of confidence over whether the Tories can win power this decade.
The Tory chairman, Francis Maude, made a frank admission yesterday that the party might not win the next general election. His remarks were later backed by a poll showing that a declining number of party members believe that David Cameron is heading for victory.
Mr Cameron will try to convince party activists, meeting over the next two days for their annual spring conference, that they must dig in for a long battle to recapture support even in big cities where the Tories have not won a seat for a decade.
Mr Maude admitted that it would be hard work to reverse the long decline of the Tory party, which began, he suggested, during Margaret Thatcher's heyday, 20 years ago. "We are going to have to earn every foot of the ascent. We are all aware none of this is easy. We are trying to reverse what are actually 20 years of the decline and paralysis," he told the Evening Standard.
"You are not going to turn that round in a day and we have to reconcile ourselves to it being a long haul, and it's not being defeatist to say we may not win the next election. It's uphill, it's a long way to go and we cannot be deterred by that. Whether or not we win the election - and I hope we will, and I certainly believe we can - that's still only the beginning of the process."
One of Mr Cameron's biggest innovations, to try to rebrand the Tories as more "green" than Labour, was called into question last night by Caroline Jackson, a Tory MEP who chaired the environment committee in the European Parliament for five years. She told BBC Radio 4's Analysis programme that "the Conservative Party pursuing the green line is all talk and no action at the moment."
Her comment was seized upon by the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who said: "It demonstrates that the credit David Cameron is getting from the media is credit he has not earned and does not deserve."
Today, Mr Cameron will be exhorting party activists to set their sights on the big cities. This week's conference, the first major party event since Mr Cameron's election as leader four months ago, is being held in Manchester, one of several large cities where there have been no Conservative councillors since the 1990s.
Mr Cameron is hoping the Tories will regain a foothold in some of these no-go areas in the local elections on 4 May.
Today's conference will be a set piece by the former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, who was known in the early 1980s as the "minister for Merseyside" because of the role he played in reviving Liverpool's economy. Lord Heseltine was appointed by Mr Cameron to lead his cities task force.
Mr Heseltine's speech will include a call for every big city to be run by a highly paid elected politician who will combine the roles of council leader and chief executive. He will tell representatives: "The chief executive of a major city is paid in the order of £150 to £200,000 a year. He or she will be among the highest paid people in most cities. If they are not capable of doing the job, there should be a system to replace them. If they are capable, why should Whitehall double or triple guess every decision they make? We should give them real freedom to serve local people.
"And anyway why do we need two chief executives? One badly paid and answerable to an electorate and one extremely well paid and enjoying a tenure far removed from public accountability. I believe that the time has come to combine these two jobs. I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account."Reuse content