The Conservative grassroots arrive in Manchester this weekend in a contented mood for what they hope will be the party's last conference in opposition. Two years ago, when Gordon Brown enjoyed his honeymoon, there were as many Tory members dissatisfied with David Cameron as satisfied. Today, 92 per cent are satisfied and just 8 per cent dissatisfied.
The fact that a whopping 99 per cent expect him to be Prime Minister after the next general election might have something to do with this transformation of mood.
The Tory rank-and-file don't always get a fair press but these are the men and women who are involved in politics with neither expectation of financial reward nor ambition of privileged office. Their voice deserves to be heard. In ConservativeHome's largest ever survey of the Tory membership, we have tested their hopes for the next Conservative government.
The No 1 issue for the next occupant of Downing Street is budget restraint. We presented the Tory membership with 20 options for cutting the deficit – 13 measures that would cut spending and seven options that would increase revenue. When we ranked the results the most favoured 13 were all spending cuts. The suggested increases in tax and other revenue-raising measures, like museum charges and road tolls, were all very unpopular and filled the bottom seven slots. The message to George Osborne is very clear. If Conservatives are going to cure the deficit it must be with spending restraint and with as little increase in tax as possible.
Another key message concerns Europe. The Tory leadership do not want the Treaty of Lisbon passed before they come to office. They want it stopped and they want to give the British people the referendum that was denied to them by Gordon Brown. If it is, however, ratified by the Irish, Czechs and Poles, the Tory leadership fear re-opening the issue would be a major distraction from their other priorities.
But the overwhelming view of Tory members is that matters cannot rest with European ratification. If Lisbon is ratified, they want a fight with Brussels: 84 per cent think that there should be a referendum on a ratified Lisbon Treaty or, better still, a referendum that gives the government the authority to "renegotiate Britain's wider relationship with the European Union".
So far, so familiar perhaps. After all, it's common knowledge that the average Tory member doesn't like tax and doesn't much care for the EU. But our poll shows that they are also committed to the broadening of the Conservative message that David Cameron has delivered in recent years – 95 per cent support his agenda on civil liberties, 84 per cent support environmental measures, 81 per cent support action against loan sharks, 70 per cent support high-speed rail links connecting the north and south and 62 per cent support investment in energy efficiency.
There is no complacency within the Tory party. Out of power for 12 long years, Conservative members are ready to strain every sinew in order to climb the mountain back to power. But if there is not complacency there is also great hope. There is a possibility that Labour may be about to enter a very self-destructive period. The reactions of Labour politicians to the defection of The Sun bordered on the hysterical.
If the Conservatives can get through the difficult years of budget discipline and then twin the party's conventional messages on crime and immigration with modernising policies on social justice and the environment, there is a real possibility that the Conservatives could penetrate deep into Labour territory.
It is difficult to afford now but if the next parliament ends with a Tory commitment to cut taxes for the poor we could be on the verge of re-alignment and a long period of Conservative power.
The writer is the editor of ConservativeHome.com
The Lisbon Treaty...
...and the Tory dilemma
*It would streamline the EU's decision-making process, diluting the power of individual members to veto EU laws. The European Parliament would have more say over EU legislation. It would create a President of Europe and a new foreign affairs supremo to represent Europe. So far, 24 countries including Britain have ratified the treaty. It has yet to be approved by Poland, the Czech Republic and Ireland, where a second referendum was held yesterday.
*If the Tories win the general election and the treaty has not been ratified by all 27 EU members, David Cameron will withdraw Britain's support, call a referendum and urge a No vote. His problem is what to do if it has already been ratified. Unravelling it could provoke a constitutional crisis in Europe, but denying a referendum would anger Tory MPs and members. While he would "not let matters rest", he does not want his first two years in office to be overshadowed by a war with Brussels.
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