Britain's Conservatives See Huge Lead in Polls

By David Stringer | September 30, 2008 | 1:28 PM EDT

Ahead in opinion polls, boosted by a run of special election victories and newly in charge of London's City Hall, Britain's main opposition Conservatives have every reason to feel cocky.

Ahead in opinion polls, boosted by a run of special election victories over the governing Labour Party and newly in charge of London's City Hall, Britain's main opposition Conservatives have every reason to feel cocky.

But their leader David Cameron has reined in the celebratory mood at an annual rally in the central England city of Birmingham, insisting on a sober and cautious front as his party plots its course to Downing Street.

Stung by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's rebuke last week that the world's financial crisis means Britain can ill afford a novice at the helm, Cameron is preparing a statesmanlike address on Wednesday.

The 41-year-old opposition chief has secured his party's political revival with a program to mend Britain's social ills, but must now sketch out a solution to the global economic woes.

Cameron's party has traditionally been Britain's chief defender of business, but the leader warned bankers and traders they'll no longer be guaranteed his protection when the crisis passes.

"They paid themselves vast rewards when it was all going well, and the minute it went wrong, they came to us to bail them out," Cameron told delegates. "There will be a day of reckoning."

Cameron knows that financial jitters could help Brown -- Treasury chief for a decade from 1997 -- find his political feet after a year of missteps. Polls show Brown has cut Cameron's lead in the last week amid the banking turmoil -- but the opposition leader is still ahead by more than 10 points, enough for a landslide election win.

Even before the current crisis, Cameron -- Tory leader since December 2005 -- was attempting to hone a more statesmanlike demeanor, turning his back on the photo shoots including a famous dog sled ride in the Arctic that marked his early months in the post.

Now he tours world capitals, turning up in Georgia at the height of the recent crisis for example, to burnish his credentials. He touts a well-crafted plan for smaller government, and perhaps even lower taxes.

"Let us show them that this is the end for the big spending, big taxing, recklessly borrowing, big, bossy, interfering government that promises so much and delivers so little," Cameron said Sunday in a swipe at Labour.

Brown has long criticized his chief rival as a slick salesman, with neat presentation skills but few new ideas to help Britain prosper. It's a charge that no longer appears to stick.

Cameron's party has cranked out hundreds of pages of detailed plans in recent months, including proposals on health care, education, law enforcement and energy.

Economic spokesman George Osborne's ideas on raising thresholds for inheritance taxes and for a levy on highly paid foreign workers in Britain, set out in his conference speech last year, have since been adopted by Brown's government.

Osborne's proposal Monday for a freeze on council tax -- a local authority levy -- is likely to prove equally popular with the British public.

Andrew Russell, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Manchester, said the opposition party appear rehabilitated from the so-called "Black Wednesday" in September 1992, when a Conservative-led Britain crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

"The Conservatives have clearly found in the last year or so, for the first time since the crisis of 1992, that they are setting the agenda on economic policy," Russell said.

Cameron also has sought to steal a march on Brown on the world stage.

He jetted to Georgia during the country's war with Russia ahead of Brown and his ministers, has struck a bond with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and shared friendly talks in July with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Patrick Dunleavy, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said opinion polls indicate Cameron could win a majority of around 150 seats in Britain's House of Commons in elections that must be held by mid-2010. Brown now has a 64-seat majority.

Brown is effectively battling to secure a hung Parliament in which no one party would hold overall control, Dunleavy said.

Yet others warn of parallels with the dog days of Conservative Prime Minister John Major's government, when a resurgent opposition Labour Party blazed ahead in opinion polls, appeared certain to win a 1992 national election, but failed to oust the incumbents.

Analysts said a triumphalist speech by Labour's then-leader Neil Kinnock on the eve of the election effectively ruined his party's prospects.

Russell said Cameron appears mindful of that history.

"What was going to be a huge party and celebration at the conference has changed, they have realized that could be a dangerous image to present," said Russell. "He knows that people sipping champagne and slapping each other on the back is not what the public want to see at a time like this." 
Cameron: This Is the End of Big Spend, Big Tax, Big Bossy Government