British PM to rally party conference as sharp cuts loom

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Prime Minister David Cameron will try to reassure Britons over the worst cuts in decades and counter the threat from a resurgent opposition at his Conservative party's conference from Sunday.

Although this is the first annual conference for Cameron's Tories since they took power in May in a coalition government, the premier will be in no mood for celebrating, with his sternest tests yet approaching fast.

The opposition Labour party is now slightly ahead in some opinion polls after Ed Miliband was elected as leader last week.

And the popularity of Cameron's centre-right Conservatives may fall further after the government gives full details of harsh public spending cuts on October 20.

For Cameron himself, the conference will mark something of a return to the public eye after a torrid five weeks in his personal life which saw the birth of his daughter Florence, quickly followed by his father's death.

British politics is coming to the end of a "phoney war" stage, with the impact of the cuts yet to become clear and Miliband settling into the job, said Peter Kellner, influential founder of pollsters YouGov.

"Only (when it does) will the shape of the real war between government and opposition become clear," he added.

The biggest battle is likely to come over the cuts.

In an emergency budget in June, the government warned departments to prepare for possible reductions of 25 percent in a bid to slash a record deficit of 154.7 billion pounds (188 billion euros, 242 billion dollars) accrued under the last Labour government.

Although Cameron has spoken for months of how important cuts are, the government will only specify exactly where they will come in October and they will not be implemented until April 2011.

Cameron is likely to argue that Britain needs to endure pain now to reap rewards later at the four-day conference in Birmingham, central England, which should attract around 13,500 people.

"It's about getting to a brighter future beyond it," he told ITV television this week. "We have to deal with the problems to get to the sunlight that lies beyond."

There are signs of a possible backlash -- a recent poll suggested three-quarters of people reject the speed and scale of the proposed cuts, while trade unions have backed coordinated strike action against them.

Staff at the BBC are even planning to strike during the Tory conference, including on the day of Cameron's keynote speech, in protest at planned changes to their pension scheme.

There is discontent among some of Cameron's own ministers, too.

In a letter to Cameron leaked this week, Defence Secretary Liam Fox warned of a "brutal" reaction if the government pushed through "draconian cuts" while British soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan.

Cameron must also tackle Labour's opinion poll bounce after Ed Miliband snatched a surprise victory over brother David in Labour's leadership race.

A YouGov/Sun newspaper poll this week put Labour ahead of the Conservatives for the first time for three years, albeit by only one percentage point.

While Cameron is reportedly much more comfortable with the prospect of taking on Ed than David, Labour currently has "most momentum," said Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics.

"The currently foreseeable trajectory of the year ahead does not promise much relief for the government," Dunleavy added.

The Tories' coalition with erstwhile arch-rivals the Liberal Democrats could also come under strain in May 2011, when there will be local elections and a referendum on voting reform.

The Tories and centrist Lib Dems will campaign on different sides, potentially opening up wider divisions.

At the conference, though, the two parties will be showing a united front.

Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem who is number two minister at the Treasury and working on implementing cuts, will be among those speaking on the conference fringe.

This is highly unusual for British party conferences, which are normally intensely tribal.

© 2010 AFP

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