Cameron: things can only get better – eventually

Conservative leader to echo Blair's optimism of 1997 in conference speech, but admits there are hard times ahead
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Indy Politics

David Cameron will today paint an optimistic picture of a post-recession Britain in an attempt to allay growing fears in the Conservative Party that its "age of austerity" message is too downbeat.

In his keynote speech to the Tory conference, Mr Cameron will declare he is "ready" to be prime minister and admit he would be "tested" by the economic crisis he would inherit. But he will tell voters: "Yes, there is a steep climb ahead. But I tell you this: the view from the summit will be worth it."

Some Shadow Cabinet members are worried that the tough economic medicine prescribed by the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, including a pay freeze for 4 million public-sector workers, was too severe and will backfire on the Tories. "We are going to take a hit," one said.

Although Mr Cameron will try to offer some light at the end of the tunnel, aides insist there is no difference between him and Mr Osborne. One said: "David's message is that he is the man to take the country through this, take the tough economic decisions and spell out what compassionate Conservatism would mean once we have come through it."

Mr Cameron will tell the Manchester conference this afternoon: "We all know how bad things are: massive debt, social breakdown, political disenchantment. But what I want to talk about today is how good things could be. Don't get me wrong, I have no illusions. If we win this election, it is going to be tough. There will have to be cutbacks in public spending, and that will be painful. We will need to confront Britain's culture of irresponsibility, and that will be hard to take for many people."

The Tory leader will pledge to "tear down Labour's big government bureaucracy" and "rip up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense". He will say: "None of this will be easy. We will be tested. I will be tested. I'm ready for that – and so I believe, are the British people."

He will declare he will not promise things he cannot deliver, but say he can look people in the eye and pledge that in a Conservative Britain, "If you put in the effort to bring in a wage, you will be better off. If you save money your whole life, you'll be rewarded. If you start your own business, we'll be right behind you. If you want to raise a family, we'll support you. If you're frightened, we'll protect you. If you risk your safety to stop a crime, we'll stand by you. If you risk your life to fight for your country, we will honour you."

He will add: "Ask me what a Conservative government stands for and the answer is this: we will reward those who take responsibility, and care for those who can't."

The Tory leader will seek to reassure environmental campaigners that he remains committed to their cause. Some of them feel he has downplayed the green agenda he highlighted after becoming Tory leader almost four years ago. He will also make a declaration of his strong personal support for the NHS – and for the work of British troops in Afghanistan.

Dissection of the £23bn cuts package announced by Mr Osborne on Tuesday continued yesterday. The shadow Chancellor denied it was an electoral gamble, saying the country had "run out of money" and tough action was required. "Whoever wins the election is going to have to take these choices," he told the BBC. "Anyone who tells you otherwise is frankly lying to you." The "real choices" in British politics were how to protect jobs while getting the public finances under control. He admitted that his measures were only the start of what needed to be done to fill the black hole in the public finances.

Mr Cameron conceded that Tory plans to reduce the running costs of Whitehall by a third could mean job cuts, and that he could not rule out tax rises. "We have to explain to people this is a clear and present danger to the whole country. If we don't deal with this deficit, taxes will have to go up even more," he said.

A YouGov poll for Sky News found that 63 per cent of people support a public-sector pay freeze, while 23 per cent oppose one. Voters are split down the middle on Tory plans to raise the retirement age for men to 66 in 2016.

The survey puts the Tories on 43 per cent (up two points), with Labour on 29 per cent (up one point) and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent (down one).

*Mr Cameron's troubles over Europe intensified yesterday after the Czech Republic assured its EU partners that it would ratify the Lisbon Treaty by the end of the year. The document has been approved by the Czech parliament but is facing a legal challenge in its constitutional court.

Mr Cameron has promised a referendum in Britain unless the 26 other member states have approved the treaty before a general election, expected next May. But he is now under pressure from Tory Eurosceptics to stage a plebiscite come what may.

What Cameron must say: The Independent panel give their view

Sheila Gunn John Major's personal press adviser

"David Cameron has to follow George Osborne in giving tough messages, and he has to paint a picture of what Britain under his premiership would look and feel like. But he has to do it in a more friendly, compassionate way than George."

Stephen Alambritis Federation of Small Businesses

"Businesses will be looking for a fine balance in David Cameron's speech, between his plan to tackle the UK's deficit and not cutting off the growth that will make the recession shallower and shorter."

Andrew Hawkins Chief executive of Comres, opinion poll specialists

"Today's speech holds three dangers for David Cameron. First, his tone need sufficient humility for voters to feel the Conservatives are not taking electoral victory for granted. Second, he must avoid frightening disenchanted erstwhile Labour supporters out of their intention not to vote, especially after George Osborne's announcements on public sector pay. Third, he should maintain the line that the Conservatives are the only party being straight with the public about the necessary scale of spending cuts but that they intend to share the financial burden fairly across different social groups."

Neil Sherlock Former speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown

"David Cameron has to demonstrate he is a prime minister in waiting. He should avoid over-the-top attacks on the Government and Prime Minister – the country wants to know how he would lead and what his priorities are. This is a speech for the country, not for the party."

Lynne Franks PR Guru

"I think he needs to come across as a man of the people. That could be difficult for an old Etonian, but communicating to a broad church is something he has done well. People want change but he needs to spell out his policies."

Angela Knight Chief executive, British Bankers Association

"I would like to hear him say he is interested in encouraging new talent, as well as developing existing talent. The City has signed up to an agenda of change and it is right to keep the pressure up on that. But I would like to hear some recognition of what the City has contributed and the one million people it employs. So far, I think he has been doing fine. The run-up to an election is difficult for an opposition, but he has taken the approach of not treating the British people like idiots and I think that was brave. I expect some more of that in his speech. I would like to hear some upbeat messages too, as what he says can have a real impact on how the country is perceived."