''Change faster'' Cameron tells Britain's Tories
MANCHESTER, Apr 8 (Reuters) David Cameron, the new leader of Britain's opposition Conservatives, said today his party must embrace deep and rapid change if it is to wrest power from Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party.
Cameron, seeking to transform the party of Margaret Thatcher into a modern and compassionate party, acknowledged he faces an uphill battle to win the next election, expected in 2009, and avoid a fourth straight election defeat for the Conservatives.
But after an initial boost in opinion polls, surveys now show the 39-year-old graduate of Eton, one of Britain's most elite schools, is failing to prove he can change the party's fortunes.
"We have a massive mountain to climb if we're to win the next election," said Cameron in his first major speech as leader to a party conference ahead of local elections on May 4.
"This change I'm leading has got to get faster, wider, deeper ...
now is not the time to put our foot on the brake, now is the time to press on the accelerator," he told a packed hall which gave him a standing ovation.
It is vital Cameron delivers on his first electoral test next month, especially in cities where Tories are weak, say activists and pollsters.
Members said they sensed the electorate was warming to the Tories but there was still uncertainty about whether people would actually vote for them.
"There's no doubt people are fed up with Tony Blair. We must now focus on convincing people the Conservatives are the alternative," said Neil Parish, a Tory MEP from Bridgewater.
Blair's popularity has fallen because of Britain's participation in the Iraq war.
Conservative Party membership has risen about 20,000 to 300,000 since Cameron took over last October and although there were still many older people at the conference, there was also evidence of a younger generation becoming.
But Cameron's speech followed a ICM poll for Channel Four News which showed that 58 per cent of those asked thought Cameron had not significantly changed the Conservatives.
The survey also showed only 32 per cent thought Cameron had the qualities to be the best prime minister, compared with 37 per cent for finance minister Gordon Brown, Cameron's likely opponent at the next election.
The poll put the Tories neck and neck with Labour on 35 per cent, but some analysts think the party should be doing better, given that Blair has also been dogged by sleaze allegations and questions over his future.
As he seeks to win over women, ethnic minorities and young voters, Cameron stressed issues including education, the environment and pensions.
Apparently unafraid to take on those on the right of his party who feel he is abandoning traditional Tory values, Cameron told his party it was not enough for the leader alone to change.
"We must show that the change is real, that it is lasting ... come with me and show me you can do it," he said.
REUTERS SRS RK2335