David Cameron will use a major speech today to ask voters to make 2010 "the year for change", but has been hit by new claims the Conservatives remain the "nasty party" in Europe.
During an appearance in Oxford, the Tory leader will set out the themes that will be deployed during this spring's election campaign. However, Mr Cameron faces accusations that the Tories remain the "nasty party" because of the voting record of their MEPs in the European Parliament.
The Liberal Democrats said the Tory leader's drive to modernise his party had been undermined by the actions of the 25 Tory MEPs since they joined a right-wing breakaway group last July.
A Tory attempt to stop the EU offering "new and additional" money at the Copenhagen summit was defeated by 588 votes to 78. Two Tory MEPs, who are climate change sceptics, Daniel Hannan and Roger Helmer, voted against Mr Cameron's policy to support an 80 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. The Tory group refused to condemn Lithuania's "section 28" law, which criminalises material that "agitates for homosexual or bisexual relations" or "defies family values". It also opposed a call for press freedom across the EU.
The European Conservatives and Reformists' (ECR) group was set up after Mr Cameron pulled his party's MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Rival parties will use the actions of Tory MEPs to attack Mr Cameron's attempts to modernise his party. In a report to her party leadership, Fiona Hall, leader of the British Liberal Democrat MEPs, said: "Whatever David Cameron says, the Conservatives ... let off the leash, are as wild-eyed and rabid as ever. Extremism is still the soft underbelly of the Conservative Party."
Tory officials insisted that Mr Cameron speaks for the party and his policies, not those of some MEPs, would be those of a future Tory government.
Today's keynote speech has been arranged to pre-empt a major interview with Gordon Brown on the BBC tomorrow. Mr Cameron will not be outlining any new policies but will reveal the party's election strategy. It will be followed by the publication of policy pledges next week.
Mr Cameron is expected to prioritise the publication of his party's proposals for the health service as he fights to prove he will protect the NHS.
*Another Labour MP has called on Gordon Brown to quit as the party's leader before the general election. Greg Pope, the MP for Hyndburn, said Lord Mandelson, the de facto deputy Prime Minister, should tell Mr Brown "the harsh truths" if he would not stand down. Mr Pope said: "Almost any of the senior figures in our party would narrow the gap with the Tories if they took over." Writing in The Independent this week, another Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, said Mr Brown should step down.