Cameron to rally Conservatives amid election talk

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BLACKPOOL, Oct 3 (Reuters) David Cameron will rally his Conservative party today amid increasing speculation that an election could be called within days.

In his closing speech to the party's conference in Blackpool, Cameron will tell delegates he wants to shrink the role of the state but will not lurch to the right or the left.

''This is a new Conservative Party, with new priorities ... There is only one direction for me and that's forward to the future,'' he will say.

Cameron's performance and its reception by the party and the wider public will be closely watched, not least by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown who has been waiting till the Tory conference ends before deciding whether to call a snap election.

The Conservatives were trailing Labour by as much as 11 percentage points in opinion polls before the four-day gathering.

A strong showing by Cameron could narrow the gap enough to make Brown think twice about the merits of an early contest.

Brown stoked speculation of a November election yesterday by announcing 500 more British troops would come home from Iraq by end-year, but analysts said a snap poll would be a big risk.

''At worst Labour could lose,'' said Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University. ''More probably there would be a very low turnout, Labour's majority would not be increased, the prime minister's authority would be severely damaged.'' Brown's announcement during a surprise trip to Iraq overshadowed the Conservative conference, where party leaders also moved into campaign mode, announcing voter-pleasing tax cuts and singling out Europe as an election battleground.

Tory Defence Spokesman Liam Fox criticised Brown's Iraq visit as a ''pre-election photo opportunity'' and questioned its timing.

Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth in turn accused Fox of ''low politics''.

''The Prime Minister went to Iraq, the numbers of troops we have got deployed in Iraq is falling,'' he told BBC radio.

''We are able to announce that it is going to fall to a lower figure than previously. And it is perfectly natural for the Prime Minister to make that statement while he is there.'' Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major urged Brown to end the ''feverish and foolish speculation'' about an early poll.

Cameron will contrast the Conservatives' string of policy commitments in Blackpool with the ''old politics'' of Labour's conference in Bournemouth last week.

''It wasn't just that we'd heard it all before ... simplistic short-term pledges rehashed and re-announced, with absolutely no indication of how they would be delivered,'' Cameron will say.

''It was the carefully calculated pitch to the four percent of voters in the middle who might switch this way or that -- a dog whistle here, a dog whistle there.'' REUTERS SKB PM1436

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