Conservatives throw down election gauntlet

( AFP ) - Opposition leader David Cameron on Wednesday dared Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call a snap general election, in a showpiece speech winding up his party's annual conference.

The Conservative Party chief threw down the gauntlet amid increasingly fevered speculation that Brown could call an election by Tuesday.

Cameron hopes his make-or-break address in Blackpool, north-west England, could see him become prime minister within weeks if Brown goes ahead.

The 40-year-old's speech laid bare why he wanted to lead the country, what he thought was going wrong in Britain under Brown's governing Labour Party and how he proposed to fix it.

"So, Mr Brown, what's it going to be? Why don't you go ahead and call that election?" he said, to huge cheers from delegates.

"Let the people pass judgment on 10 years of broken promises, let people decide who's really making the arguments about the future of our country, let people decide who can make the changes that we need in our country.

"Call that election. We will fight; Britain will win."

Cameron cast himself as an optimistic leader in tune with modern Britain, and painted the 56-year-old Brown as old-fashioned, out-of-touch and unable to be a force for change after a decade as Blair's finance minister.

The speech came a day after Brown was widely accused of cynical electioneering during his trip to Iraq, where he announced that 1,000 British troops could be home by Christmas.

It was later confirmed the oddly round figure included 500 soldiers whose withdrawal was announced in July and 270 who have already left.

"God, we've got to be better than that," Cameron said in his off-the-cuff speech.

"If you treat people like fools, you don't deserve to run the country, let alone win an election."

The Tory leader's address focused on three themes: giving people more opportunity and power over their lives, making families stronger and society more responsible, and making Britain safer and "greener."

"People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in," he said.

"I want to tell you what I believe, I want to tell you what's wrong with our country and what we can do to put it right."

He added: "People want to know are you really up for it? Do you have what it takes? Are you tough enough and strong enough to make those decisions? And I answer unreservedly: yes."

Cameron accused Gordon Brown of repeatedly re-launching the same policies, with "no indication how any of these things are going to be done. It is not just the cynicism of it, he told us things he knows he can't do.

"People in this country, after 10 years of Labour, really despair they can get the sort of change they want.

"We've got to inspire them and say it doesn't have to be like this, you don't have to put up with this."

In a party political broadcast on television later on Wednesday, Cameron pushed his party's plans to reform stamp duty -- a tax paid by homebuyers -- and inheritance tax, and also outlined proposed changes to key social services like health and education.

Two years into a five-year parliament, Brown may seek his own mandate after taking over from Tony Blair in June.

Brown's Iraq visit was widely seen as another indication he could call a snap election as early as Tuesday for a November 1 poll date.

Labour were well ahead in the opinion polls before the Conservative conference, setting up Cameron's address as an all-or-nothing attempt to win over voters and scare the prime minister out of going to the electorate.

Labour hit back at Cameron with stock "same old Tory Party" and "sums simply do not add up" lines of attack.

"Until the Tories have a credible economic policy, then David Cameron cannot credibly talk of change," said Ed Miliband, the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The stakes were high, but Cameron is a slick performer who relishes the showpiece occasion.

It was in the same auditorium, the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool's Winter Gardens complex, that an off-the-cuff speech propelled him to the party's leadership two years ago.

Now he hopes his second turn on the Blackpool stage can propel him to become the country's leader.

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