Tories face pressure from tighter polls

BRIGHTON, England Sun Feb 28, 2010 3:00am GMT

Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaks at the Scottish Conservative Party Spring conference in Perth, Scotland February 12, 2010. REUTERS/David Moir

Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaks at the Scottish Conservative Party Spring conference in Perth, Scotland February 12, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/David Moir

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BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - David Cameron, facing criticism over his Conservative Party's dwindling poll lead weeks before an election, said Sunday he had struggled to get his message across to voters.

For months, polls showed Cameron's Conservatives with a double-digit lead over the Labour Party, which has ruled since 1997.

But the lead has shrunk to as little as 5 points in the approach to an election expected in early May, raising the possibility of a "hung parliament" where no party commands an overall majority.

That prospect alarms financial markets which fear it would lead to a weak government incapable of decisive action to rein in Britain's gaping budget deficit.

"You have to work very, very hard to get anything across," Cameron said in an interview with the Sunday Times, explaining why his message had failed to hit home with some voters.

Cameron, who will try to regain momentum in a major speech to Conservative Party faithful at a conference in Brighton Sunday (2 p.m. British time), conceded not everyone in Britain was obsessed by politics.

"This weekend there will be more people watching (Premier League soccer team) Aston Villa than my speech," he said.

Cameron is expected to tell delegates that the Conservatives have a patriotic duty to win the election because they have to sort out the "complete and utter mess" the country is in, a party source said.

MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB

Writing in the News of the World, Cameron said Britain had got a "massive mountain to climb to reach long-term prosperity."

Cameron wants urgent action to cut the deficit but Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that moving too fast to rein in spending could cut short a fledgling economic recovery.

The Conservatives, conscious of the risk of alienating voters with too much talk of austerity, have toned down their calls for cuts.

A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed, for the first time since July 2007, people trusted Labour more than the Conservatives to run the economy. More people in the poll said they knew what Labour stood for on important issues than the Conservatives.

Cameron has faced criticism for creating confusion over the party's policy on tax breaks for married couples. Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley urged Cameron's team Saturday to "stand and fight" for their beliefs.

Cameron, who has sought to soften the Conservatives' right-wing image since becoming leader in late 2005 and to appeal more to centrist voters, said he would not respond to poll setbacks by returning to the party's "comfort zone."

Nor would he play things safe and try to win the election by default. "This is the Conservative party that is offering radical change ... I've made my choice. It is a modern party. There is no going back," he told the Sunday Times.

He said the narrowing of the polls would drive home to people that they faced a choice in the election, which Brown may call at any time up until June 3.

"There is a danger that people could wake up Friday March 26 or Friday May 7, whenever it is, when they find Gordon Brown is their prime minister for another five years and we need to put that choice starkly in front of them," Cameron said.

The Sunday Telegraph said May 6 remained the favourite for polling day, but it quoted senior Labour sources as saying that plans for an April election were being drawn up should Brown choose to call one.

(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Keith Weir and Matt Falloon)

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