London (CNSNews.com) - Declaring itself a government-in-waiting, Britain's opposition Conservative Party kicked off its annual conference Monday with a confident challenge to Prime Minister Tony Blair to call a general election
"This is the conference which I believe with all my heart can set us on the road to victory at the general election," Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ancram said in a well-received speech to delegates gathered in the seaside resort of Bournemouth.
"This conference will be about winning. We know we can win because, over this last year, we have won time and time again. We are ready to let the people decide. Are you, Mr. Blair?" Ancram asked.
Blair is expected to call the next general election early, sometime next year, possibly in the spring.
Floundering in the polls just months ago, the Conservatives have in recent weeks seen a reversal of fortunes as Blair's Labor government has grappled with one crisis after another.
The Labor Party conference last week, rather than an upbeat celebration by a party successfully pursuing its policies three years after sweeping to power with a huge majority, was instead overshadowed by a fuel tax crisis, anger over a paltry state pension increase, a failed, costly tourist attraction, and slipping polls.
Blair gave what was, in part, a defensive and apologetic speech acknowledging some recent mistakes, and delegates defeated the government in a motion on pensions.
Conservative leader William Hague said on the eve of this week's conference that his party would show that it was ready to govern.
"You can see the disgust at the government, the increasing and deep disillusionment," he told the BBC. "They want to know what the alternative is. We have to present them with that alternative so that people can then judge for themselves."
But a new poll in the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph Monday suggests that, despite the government's problems, the Conservatives are still not capitalizing on voter unhappiness with Labor.
In several polls after gas price protests caused severe disruptions last month, Labor for the first time in eight years slipped behind the Conservatives. Since then, however, backing for the governing party has crept up again and now stands at 39 percent compared to 36 percent for the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats received 20 points in the Gallup poll, their best showing in six years. Not for the first time the third party appears to be gaining from disillusionment with both major parties.
The Gallup poll shows a number of reasons why voters said they would not vote Conservative. Topping the list was unhappiness with the way the party governed when last in power. Next, respondents struggled with envisioning Hague as a good prime minister. The third reason was the view that the party was "not really interested in public services like the health service and education."
Hague has struggled to present himself as a serious contender for the premiership. He has alienated the "moderate" wing of his party with "hard line" positions on crime and asylum-seekers, upset the pro-European camp with his "euro-skeptic" views, and astonished many ordinary supporters with tales of his exploits as a hard-drinking, "14-pints-a-day" working teenager.
One of the biggest challenges the Conservative Party faces is how to make itself distinctive and a viable alternative in a political environment which has seen a repositioned "New Labor" usurp some traditional Conservative positions.
Hague's critics in the party say he has leaned too far to please the party's right-wing and could lose the general election as a result.
A former Conservative health secretary, Stephen Dorrell, said the party was "at its best" a broad center-right coalition incorporating various points of view.
By only talking "to one section of the center-right point of view," he warned, the party would not get the number of votes required to win the election.
In a bid to widen the Conservatives' appeal and throw off the extremist tag, Hague will unveil this week a series of initiatives on social issues, issues he said in past years "might not have been seen to be at the very top of our agenda."
A first announcement Monday was for plans to regenerate run-down inner city areas, including the dismantling of "tower blocks" - dilapidated high-rise, low-income apartment blocks.
Later in the week the party is expected to announce a more generous increase for state pensioners than the government has promised.
Labor has accused the Conservative Party of promising tax cuts while not explaining exactly how they will be funded without cutting spending on health and other services.