The Tories are planning to fight the next election on a less detailed manifesto than in 2005 in an attempt to head off Labour attacks on their programme for government, the party's election co-ordinator has disclosed.
George Osborne said they were determined not to fall into the trap of setting out precise plans for tackling Whitehall waste that can be "picked apart" by ministers.
Brushing off gloomy opinion poll ratings, Mr Osborne insisted the Conservatives were ready for the contest which could take place within weeks. He declared: "Bring it on."
He strongly denied that the party had "lurched to the right" in recent months and signalled that it intended to ridicule Gordon Brown's insistence that he represented a change from Tony Blair.
The shadow Chancellor told an Independent fringe meeting that the party had learnt its lesson from the 2005 election, when it identified £35bn of state sector savings. Mr Osborne said that led to the Tories becoming bogged down in defending their plans, when their true target should have been government profligacy. He admitted: "We produced a whole raft of detailed ideas which could get picked apart in the general election and we were on the defensive when we should have been on the offensive."
Slashing government waste will be a key theme of the Tories' appeal to the electorate, but Mr Osborne made clear the party would only make broad-brush commitments to reducing government waste. He told the meeting, on the theme of "How do the Conservatives win next time?", that not too much could be read into "volatile" polls and into surveys conducted after the Prime Minister's speech to last week's Labour conference.
Referring to the frenzied speculation that an election was imminent, he said: "We are either in the position where we have more advance notice than any opposition party has ever had or the Prime Minister is going to bottle it. That's not a bad position for an opposition party to be in."
He also denied that the party leadership had moved to the right by focusing at the conference yesterday on reducing taxes. He said: "There hasn't been a shift, it's about balance."
Mr Osborne said it was "rubbish" to argue that the party was abandoning the political mainstream by speaking out about such issues as law and order. And he rebuffed the suggestion that he had underestimated Gordon Brown before he became Prime Minister, adding: "I shadowed him for two years. I know exactly what he is like."
He said he had foreseen that Mr Brown would attempt to play down his left-wing credentials, address criticism of his personality and talk about change. But he added: "The only thing I hadn't anticipated was there would be really no substantial policy change."
Mr Osborne ridiculed the lack of policy initiatives at the Labour conference.Reuse content