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Britain's Cameron – prime minister-in-waiting?

At the Conservative Party's conference Thursday, David Cameron will try to project a more compassionate image even as he calls for public-spending cuts and tax hikes.

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In an election that will center on the economy, the Conservatives hope to make gains by speaking with the greatest authority and frankness about public-sector spending cuts and potential tax hikes.

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They are necessary, they say, because of a hulking national debt accrued by a profligate Labour treasury.

Taking the conference floor on Tuesday, Mr. Osborne, who would hold the purse strings in a future Cameron government, said a freeze on public-sector pay for millions of workers will be necessary.

"Labour created this mess, and we Conservatives are going to have to sort it out. We are sinking in a sea of debt, and we need to rescue the economy from the feckless irresponsibility of the last 12 years," he said.

Hysterical Cameron?

That stirred an immediate response from teachers and nurses' unions who claimed that a "hysterical" Cameron government will slash-and-burn school and hospital budgets.

Abroad, Cameron's problems are also mounting. Ahead of the conference, the ritual squabbling between Conservative Euroskeptics and Europhiles - those who want out and in the European Union - threatened to spill into open war.

Cameron was forced to play down suggestions of a rift in party policy toward a European Union Treaty referendum, an issue brought to the fore by Irish voters over the weekend who decided to accept the terms of the Lisbon Treaty after rejecting it last year.

The Tory leader had previously promised British Euroskeptics their own referendum on the treaty if his party wins power. But he has appeared to backpedal on that pledge, aware of making Britain the only nation standing in the way of ratification of the 27-member treaty.

Cameron's European alliances have also caused a stir. He became Tory leader in 2005 on a promise to break with the decades-old Conservative alignment with the center-right in Europe.

In June, he repositioned his members of the European Parliament with the European Conservatives and Reformists. That caused consternation among Europe's major players, who see the faction as a group of dubious right-wingers determined to block further integration of the European Union.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband took it further, accusing two of Cameron's new allies, Polish politician Michal Kaminski and Latvian Roberts Zile, of holding Nazi sympathies.

He also accused Mr. Zile of celebrating the Latvian Waffen-SS. Both Mr. Kaminski and Zile vigorously refute Miliband's claims.

This week's tussle over the Lisbon Treaty was a reminder that Europe remains an elephant in the room for Cameron's party.

Yet Downing Street beckons – if Cameron can prevent a damaging round of infighting and convince the electorate he can lead an economic recovery and jobs growth while protecting public services. "We will not let Britain down," he said on Monday.