Questions about the Conservatives' fitness for government still "hang in the air" despite two years of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership, Theresa May, the party chairman admitted yesterday.
In a speech opening the party conference in Blackpool, she warned delegates that the Tories still had to ask whether they had done enough to win at the next general election.
Mrs May insisted that there was no longer a "natural party of government". She said: "We must be that government and we can be that government.
"But one question still hangs in the air: Labour have done enough to lose the next election. Have we done enough to win? Have we done enough to earn the right to be in government once again? Or could Labour win the next election by default?
"Our country cannot afford another five years of Labour government and we are the only party that can put them out of business."
Mrs May insisted that the Tories were "the only alternative government of this country".
But she cautioned: "We are the only party that can bring an end to Labour's years of failure. But people need to know if we are ready and this week we must give them a resounding answer, yes, we are. Everything we say and do must show we are united in purpose."
The party chairman said the conference was the most important for a decade. But she insisted the party was "on the right path, moving in the right direction". Mrs May warned delegates that the public was increasingly critical of the way that politicians behave.
She said: "People want an end to the sniping, the point scoring, the ranting and raving that often passes for political debate in Britain today ... we should leave the yah-boo stuff to others and instead behave in a way that gives credibility to our promises." She added: "Rich or poor. Straight or gay. Black or white. Whoever you are, wherever you are from, the Conservative Party is for you."
Mrs May said the next election would be won on public services and tax policy.
She told delegates: "The battleground for the next election is already set. The people of Britain are fed up with failing public services. They're fed up with paying more and more tax. They're fed up with a Prime Minister who covers up his Government's failures with spin and deceit."
She added: "We can never forget that we are the servants of the people and they are increasingly critical of the way politicians behave."
Mrs May also turned her fire on the Liberal Democrats, lampooning them as promoting policies not fit for the Monster Raving Loony Party.
But she said the Conservatives had to take on the Lib Dems after their victory in the Brent East by-election. She said: "It's not good enough for us to sit back in Westminster and simply try to shout them down. We have to take them on on the ground and show them up for who they really are and what they really stand for.
"The truth is they stand for nothing. They have no answers for Britain. But we do."
For the Tory party to succeed, said Mrs May, it was essential to apply their belief in freedom, choice and enterprise to the problems of today. "We are on the right path. We are moving in the right direction. We need to build a 21st century to complement the 21st century politics we have in place. That means turning a structure that was designed to support the government of yesterday into a vehicle that can deliver the government of tomorrow."
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