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Honesty is our only protection from the hatred that is coming

In a New Year Editorial tomorrow Tim Montgomerie looks hopefully at what Conservatives might achieve in the next ten years. Today he examines the big strategic choice that David Cameron faces before the election: Will Cameron choose to win a mandate as well as a majority?

I remain very optimistic about Tory prospects at the next General Election. I think Labour is exhausted, disunited and badly-led. It has wrecked the country's finances. It has presided over a catastrophic loss of confidence in parliamentary standards. Social mobility has collapsed. Anti-social behaviour has exploded. Brown and Blair led our brave military to defeat in southern Iraq.

CAMERON POINTING The Conservatives' opinion poll advantage has been remarkably stable since Brown bottled his autumn 2007 opportunity for a honeymoon election. The Tories have cornered all three ends of Robert Worcester's iron triangle of political success; (1) our leader is preferred to theirs; (2) we are more trusted with the economy; and (3) we are seen as united. We also have the superior elections machine - outgunning Labour and the Liberals in local government, parliamentary by-elections, web-based activity and in fundraising.

Team Cameron's decision to agree to three election debates has given Nick Clegg a golden opportunity to shore up Liberal Democrat support but, on balance, I see no reason to revisit my underlying optimism as long as the whole party works ceaselessly until every last possible vote is won.

The prevailing wisdom at CCHQ is that we focus on beating Labour and worry about what happens next if and when the Conservatives are elected. I think that's a mistake that will make governing infinitely harder and actually underestimates the electorate's openness to some truth-telling from politicians.

The great fact is that government is going to be hellish after the election (whoever wins). The new government will have to make the deepest cuts that any British political party has ever made.

There'll be no time to relax into the job. There'll need to be an emergency budget to reassure desperately anxious international investors.

PoundAttack Every cut will be opposed by the unions and their £25m war chest. This will be the first time cutbacks have been made in the internet age. Every local and national interest group will mobilise online to fight cuts.

Labour's march through the quangocracy will ensure that much of Britain's government will remain under the Left's control even with Tories in charge of Whitehall departments. Left-leaning heads of quangos and charities will lead the opposition to cuts (and they'll be presented as independent minds on the Today programme).

To cut the size of the state without a clear electoral mandate in these circumstances will be a very risky enterprise even if The Mail, Telegraph and Tory base rallies to the cause.

There is an additional constitutional reason for securing a mandate. If elected, David Cameron's government will be the first Conservative government not to have a majority in the Lords.  The Lords will be much more likely to block measures that weren't signalled in the manifesto.

Have the Tories got that mandate yet? I don't think so. There has been talk of austerity and tough choices and a small list of savings has been announced. But have voters been given a clear idea of what's ahead? Tory spokesmen are often heard attacking Labour for the modest cutbacks that have been made. George Osborne has denied that he is even looking at increasing VAT.

6a00d83451b31c69e20120a60b4526970c The extent to which David Cameron seeks a mandate as well as a majority at the next General Election remains the big strategic choice that keeps Conservative advisers awake at night. We do not need detailed spending numbers but we do need a 'TV moment' where Cameron is unambiguous about the pain ahead. Cameron and Osborne need to be able to say - credibly - that they warned the country that they would do these difficult things and they are now doing them. The message should be framed as necessary to put Britain back on track; 'We are going through a tunnel but there is a great future for Britain at the end of that tunnel'. We need a clip from David Cameron that will be replayed on TV in the years to come as the truth-telling moment when David Cameron made it clear what was coming. Our austerity message needs to be infused with special measures to help the very poorest. But without honesty before the election, the hatred in government may be unbearable.

Tim Montgomerie


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