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Prime Minister Cameron hopes to deliver amid doubts, midterm blues

BIRMINGHAM, England -- Even Prime Minister David Cameron sounds unsure he can win the next election.

Grappling with a stagnant economy and upstaged lately by the boisterous mayor of London, a former schoolmate who seems to want his job, Cameron faces a divided Conservative Party whose members are worried they face electoral defeat in 2015.

His gamble on the return of economic growth has so far failed, a fact bluntly underlined by the International Monetary Fund's downgrade of Britain's growth forecasts on Tuesday, just a day before his annual speech to Conservative activists.

So he spent the morning of his 46th birthday explaining to reporters why even the fiscally orthodox IMF has told Britain it may have to defer spending cuts Cameron has said are vital — and why he felt he still had a chance of winning the next election.

“At this conference there is a sense that we can win the 2015 general election outright if we focus on the big questions,” the prime minister told the BBC on the sidelines of the annual party conference in Birmingham.

“It's about growth, it's about dealing with debt and the deficit and its also about unlocking aspiration.”

But in the bars and debating halls at the conference, whose slogan was “Britain Can Deliver,” there was deep unease about whether Cameron can deliver victory — let alone the absolute majority that eluded him in 2010 when he only ousted Labour by entering into coalition with the small Liberal Democrat party.

The Conservatives now trail Labour by 10 percentage points in polls; a poorly presented budget and a botched rail franchise tender have prompted complaints of government incompetence.

Though few in the party think it realistic to imagine a change of leader before the next election — despite much talk this week of the populist charms of London mayor Boris Johnson — Cameron's grip on power faces a huge challenge come that vote.

“For David Cameron to lead the Tories to outright victory at the next election he has got to boost the Tory vote by 5 percentage points compared with the last election,” said Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov pollster.

“No governing party has achieved that for more than 150 years,” he added. “Given Britain's economic problems and public spending cuts, to achieve this would be utterly extraordinary.”

The election of May 2015 is almost certain to be decided on the health of the economy — and the government is well behind its own targets for reducing the budget deficit and the IMF forecast the economy would contract by 0.4 percent this year.

Supporters point to the IMF forecast that the US$2.5 trillion economy will grow by 1.1 percent next year and say that Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne, cannot soften their austerity program for fear of spooking bond investors.

But a cut in income tax this year for the wealthiest Britons has allowed Labour on the left to portray the Conservatives as a party ruling for the privileged, a charge sharpened by Cameron's own privileged background and education at Eton and Oxford.

“We have to show we are not just helping our rich friends but that we are on the side of the strivers, the working man,” said Robert Halfon, a Conservative member of Parliament for an industrial town near London.

“A lot of it we are doing already, but we have not communicated it as well as we might.”

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