Cameron must put policy first

THIS has not been the euphoric launch start to the election campaign that David Cameron envisaged. Until recently, his party's spring conference was intended to be a seminal moment – the setpiece event that would effectively seal the Conservative's deal with the electorate.

It has not worked out. Instead, the Tory leader found himself on the defensive over faltering poll ratings, with his second-in-command William Hague dismissing "crisis" talk and Liam Fox, another key lieutenant, admitting a Gordon Brown election victory is "a distinct possibility".

Of course, it would be mistaken to place too much emphasis on one opinion poll, especially one where the conclusions appeared to differ between the first and second editions of a Sunday newspaper. Yet a succession of polls point to a narrowing of the Tory leader, in part because of the Opposition's mixed messages on public spending.

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For too long, the Conservatives have relied upon the implosion of the Government to secure their return to power. They have not realised that voters are disenchanted with all the main parties following the expenses scandal, and particularly those whose policies are driven by opportunism rather than principle.

This is Mr Cameron's biggest problem. Despite

the magnitude of the recession, the Conservatives – the traditional party of business – are still not trusted on the economy because their policies are not sufficiently robust. The inexperience of George Osborne, as Shadow Chancellor, does not inspire confidence when the Tories need to be making a progressive argument for the electorate's backing.

It's simply not good enough to stand on a "Vote for Change" ticket – shorthand for "Back us because we're not Gordon Brown". Mr Cameron says this is his "patriotic duty" but a prospective government has to be far more convincing in explaining how it will change Britain for a better.

The Tory leader made an impassioned start yesterday with an optimistic speech about an aspirational Britain, family-friendly policies and an overhaul of the NHS. The disappointment is that it has taken a "crisis" of sorts to force Mr Cameron to throw away his notes and make a progressive argument for change that voters have been waiting so long to hear, and consider.