It is always a great pleasure for me to be with so many friends and colleagues at the annual conference of the Conservative Councillors Association. Whenever I speak at your conference, I am reminded of the great tradition of public service and duty that exists throughout all sections of our party - locally and nationally. It is not borne of personal ambition or self-fulfilment, but of a desire to serve our districts, our communities and our nation. And looking around the hall today, I see that great Tory tradition of service on full display once again.
The Conservative Councillors Association represents all that is best about the Conservative Party in local government, and in your Chairman Paul Hanningfield you could have no better representative for your views on the Board of the Party.
At this conference, though, we begin again by thinking of those colleagues who are unable to be with us today because of the foot and mouth crisis that has engulfed the British countryside.
As the record increases in the number of cases this week has shown, for farmers and for huge numbers of rural businesses and tourist attractions facing financial ruin, the end is far from in sight. In the last 10 days, I've met farmers in Devon desperate because the spread of the disease has not been halted. I've met hotel owners and tourist operators in the Lake District facing bankruptcy because emergency help has not arrived. Anyone who has spent any time in the countryside knows that this crisis is clearly not under control. In fact it is getting worse.
We've supported the Government's measures to halt the spread of the disease. But we have watched with increasing exasperation and anger as the Government has continually underestimated the scale of the crisis, has failed to act with anything like the necessary speed or vigour and has consistently shown itself to be behind the game.
There is much more they could be doing and yet for some reason they refuse to do it.
It's time to get the army properly involved. They've got the manpower, they've got the machinery. They should be used to help clear the backlog of rotting carcasses. They army are used to moving things. They are used to acting quickly. It's time to move them in. It's common sense, so let's get on with it.
We should speed up the slaughter programme. The backlog is growing by thousands every day. We should be sending in the valuers with the slaughtermen so there's no more delays.
There are 80,000 dead animals lying in fields. Everyone acknowledges that burial is the most effective way of disposing of them. We should be putting pressure on the Environment Agency to find the right sites so we can get on with it.
Rural businesses need immediate help. They're faced with thousands of pound of expenses but with no income. What they need is a Government backed loan scheme, like the one we put forward four days ago. They can't wait any longer so let's get on with it.
If all these things are going to happen we need the full weight and authority of government to drive them. When there is a war, there is a War Cabinet. Well this is a national crisis, and we need a Crisis Cabinet.
The Prime Minister should set it up now. It's not enough to involve just the agriculture, environment and tourism ministers. The Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the Trade Secretary, the territorial ministers should all sit on it too. The Prime Minister should chair this Crisis Cabinet himself. And it should meet every day until they're on top of this crisis.
My message to the Government is: Get it together. Get a grip.
And there's another thing. In parts of the country severely affected by Foot and Mouth, fighting the disease must have priority over fighting elections.
So Tony Blair should bring forward legislation now to take on the power to postpone some county elections should it become clear later that people cannot participate fully and freely in them. The time to do that is fast running out.
The foot and mouth crisis comes on top of all the other crippling blows that have hit the countryside like the worst agricultural depression for sixty years, the plunging farm incomes and the closure of rural services. While Labour can't be blamed for the outbreak of foot and mouth they can be blamed for policies that threaten to destroy the liberty and livelihood of thousands of people.
And it's time it came to an end.
So I'll give you, and millions of people in rural Britain desperate for a change of Government, this assurance. The next Conservative Government will stand up for the interests of the British countryside, we will fight for the hard-pressed British farmers and we will do everything we can to defend a rural way of life that Labour have so brutally and systematically undermined.
We will do these things because Conservatives believes in the countryside, because unlike Labour that has pitted town against country we are the party of One Nation. We will do it because we will govern for all the people. And we'll do it by winning the next Election.
Whatever happens, in a few weeks time many of you will be facing the electorate locally, while our party could once again be asking the British people to entrust us to form the government of our country.
Let nobody be in any doubt. We are determined to win in the county council elections on 3 May, just as we are determined to win in any other elections that might take place on that day. And we can win together.
I have no hesitation in saying we can win. We can win because we have in the Conservative Shadow Cabinet a team brimming with the talent, the policies and the drive to take on the governance of our country.
We can win because of the reforms that together we have made to make our party the most open and democratic in British politics.
We can win because of the hard work, the tireless dedication and the commitment of the people in this hall.
We can win because of the efforts of people like you who through some of the most difficult times in our long history have been the backbone that has kept this party strong.
We can win because of the way you have championed the Conservative cause on the doorsteps and in the council chambers, fighting for Conservative principles when those principles were under attack as never before.
And we can win because week in, week out, you have been winning elections when all the pundits said that those elections couldn't be won.
It's thanks to you that the Conservative Party now has nearly 2,500 more councillors than we did four years ago. It's thanks to you that we control four times as many councils than we did four years ago. It's thanks to you that we are the largest party of local government in district councils and county councils and after 3 May we'll be larger still.
It's thanks to you that under Michael Ancram's Chairmanship we are ready to fight the most disciplined, professional and effective campaign we have ever fought.
Because it doesn't matter when it comes. The Conservative Party can win the General Election, and make no mistake the Conservative Party is fighting tooth and nail to win the General Election.
And I'll give two more reasons why we can win. Tony Blair and New Labour.
We could give no greater service to our country than to get rid of this sleaze ridden, crony stuffed, promise breaking, miserable excuse for a Government, led by a Prime Minister so consumed with his own self importance that he commissions memos entitled 'Getting the Right Place in History' and doesn't even hide the fact that his only guiding purpose in politics is to be re-elected for a second term.
Remember that day four years ago when Tony Blair walked into Downing Street. He told the country that things could only get better. He pledged that his would be a government that would only promise what it could deliver. He said he was offering the country a new kind of politics and a government that would be purer than pure.
Yet four years on the hopes and aspirations of millions of people have been destroyed, and their trust has been betrayed.
Four years on we know that for millions of people still waiting for their hospital operation, for better education, for more police, for improved transport and for lower taxes the only certainty under Labour is that things have got worse.
Four years on, we know that all the promises, the pledges and Tony Blair's vows have been broken by a Government that lives by cynicism, deception, distortion, manipulation and half-truth - a Government that is all spin and no delivery.
Four years on we know that Tony Blair's new kind of politics meant Formula One, favours for lobbyists, the home loans scandal, the Lord Chancellor's dinners, the two resignations of Peter Mandelson, and everything to do with Geoffrey Robinson.
Four years on we know that being purer than pure really meant allowing Robin Cook wilfully to mislead the House of Commons and get away with it and the scandal of allowing Keith Vaz to cling on to office when everyone knows that Tony Blair should have sacked him weeks ago.
And after four years of failure, cushioned only by the strength of the economy that we Conservatives bequeathed him, Tony Blair now asks for four more years. You've got to hand it to him. He's certainly got some nerve. He's the first Prime Minister in history to ask for a second term of office so that he can begin to get round to delivering on all the promises he has broken in his first term.
Well I've got news for Tony Blair. We are not going to sit back and let him inflict four more years of damage on the country we love. We are going to fight him every inch of the way and with every ounce of energy we've got.
We all know what four more years of Labour would mean for Britain. And we are not afraid to spell it out.
Four more years of stealth taxes, of fewer police, of more criminals released early to commit even more crimes, of more cancelled operations, of more crises in our schools, of more chaos on our roads and of even more expensive petrol.
And yes, after four more years Britain railroaded into a European single currency, with the British pound gone forever and ever more of our precious rights to govern ourselves handed over to Brussels. The steady and certain march into a European superstate - on course.
I make no apology for warning of the dangers of a second term of Labour. Just as I'm not going to be deterred by a self appointed, self opinionated liberal elite from speaking up for the common sense instincts of the British people.
In New Labour's Britain, there are certain subjects that we are not supposed to talk about. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you extreme. Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your country and they call you a xenophobe.
Well I don't believe that the British people are any of those things. They recognise that a decent society needs properly funded public services. But they don't see why they should pay higher and higher taxes when they can't see any improvement in those services.
They are not reactionary. But they understand that, in order to tackle crime, we should be increasing police numbers not cutting them. And they can see that letting violent criminals out of prison early is likely to cause more crime.
Our people are not intolerant. They recognise, as Conservatives have always recognised, that Britain must offer sanctuary to those fleeing from persecution. But they believe that Britain should be a safe haven and not a soft touch.
Above all, our people are not xenophobes. They understand that the United Kingdom works internally as a partnership of nations, and externally as a partner in the international community. They know that we are a maritime, trading country, connected by our history and geography to other continents.
And they also believe in democracy. They can see that if our interest rates, our exchange rates and even our tax rates were set in Frankfurt, then yet more of our rights would have been signed away.
So Tony Blair and his ministers can sneer all they like. But the reality is they are not sneering at me. They are sneering at the British people, whose opinions they hold in contempt.
That's one of the differences between Tony Blair and me.
I am not ashamed to speak for the people of our country who don't feel they have a voice, the people who despair at the way in which common sense is brushed aside by the politically correct, the people who look on with anger as they see their country increasingly being taken from them by an arrogant and out of touch liberal elite.
I am proud to speak up for the common sense instincts of the British people and that is what I will continue to do.
But I know I don't have anything to teach you about the nature of the Labour Party or their Liberal allies in government. After all you see how they behave at first hand every day in town halls the length and breadth of Britain.
You see at first hand Labour and the Liberals who control seventeen out of the top twenty highest charging councils in England and Wales.
You see how the Council Tax has been turned into the ultimate in stealth taxes, engineered by central government, but with councils rather than Gordon Brown having to face the anger of local residents as their bills soar.
You see how the other stealth taxes imposed by Gordon Brown - like the higher fuel tax, landfill tax and the raid on pension funds - have helped make the Council Tax for a Band D property rise by an average of £212 since Labour came to power.
You see the waste and mismanagement that causes Labour county and district councils charge £100 a year more on Band D properties than in areas where Conservatives are in control.
You have seen at first hand the profligacy of Labour in establishing their costly and totally unnecessary extra tier of bureaucracy, Regional Development Agencies that they then pack with their own supporters.
You have seen at first hand the high handed and arrogant Labour Government that is forcing councils to adopt Cabinets or directly elected Mayors whether they are wanted or not.
You have seen at first hand Labour's war against drivers as they press ahead with their crazy schemes for workplace parking taxes and road charges that will pile extra costs onto business and threaten to force businesses them to abandon the city centres.
You see at first hand the extra red tape created by the introduction of Labour's flawed schemes like Best Value.
You see at first hand the lunatic political correctness in Labour controlled authorities like Birmingham that puts forward plans to abolish Christmas because it's 'offensive' to minorities and replace it with a 'Winterval' or in Liberal controlled authorities like Colchester that tried to ban Punch and Judy because it 'promotes domestic violence'.
But why should any of this surprise us? Because the reality is Labour and the Liberals in the Council chamber are no different to their colleagues in the House of Commons. Wherever they are given the opportunity to govern - in Whitehall or your town hall - the song remains the same. Higher taxes and poorer services. All spin and no delivery.
On indicator after indicator, Labour or Liberal councils provide a worse standard of service than do those that are Conservative run. They have dirtier streets, poorer street lighting, pay less of their bills on time, have more empty council housing, collect less of their rent and council tax and have worse schools exam results. They are the Labour and Liberal rotten boroughs, and they are a national disgrace.
People don't want to see more of their hard-earned money taken away in tax, for it then to be frittered away on Labour's pet projects and crazy schemes. They pay their tax in order to get a well run, efficient council that concentrates on delivering the services it is supposed to deliver and delivers them well. That is what they get when they vote for Conservative councils. Lower taxes and better quality services.
Since becoming leader of the Party it has been one of my key objectives to re-assert the Conservative commitment to local government. That's why, as one of the reforms to our Party, I established the Conservative Councillors Association and ensured that the Chairman should have a place on the Party's Board.
I did this because I believe in local government. I value local government. And I want to see local government thrive.
I want to see open, transparent and accountable local democracy with the power of the central state rolled back. I want to decentralise power away from Whitehall and back to local communities and neighbourhoods. I want to end the nanny state culture of interference and meddling that has run amok under this Government and put decision making back into the hands of people who best understand local concerns. I want to do this because it makes common sense. And I want to do it because unlike Labour, whose idea of local government seems to be a never ending series of circulars and diktats, I trust the people.
It's because I trust the people that the next Conservative Government will make every school a free schools with the power to set their own admissions policies, and impose their own discipline. It's common sense that when teachers and parents are put in charge, standards will rise. And Conservatives will deliver common sense in education.
It's because I trust the people that the next Conservative Government will create free councils with responsible and efficient councils being subject to less Government interference and given more financial freedom. It's common sense that well run councils shouldn't be held back because of a minority of them that are badly run. And Conservatives will deliver common sense in local government.
The next Conservative Government will deliver common sense by giving councils discretion over local development by abolishing Labour's regional and national housebuilding targets.
We will deliver common sense by giving councils new powers to promote economic development and regeneration and by abolishing Labour's Regional Development Agencies and their Brussels offices too.
We will deliver common sense by stopping the introduction of directly-elected regional assemblies and by ending Labour's plans to abolish England's county councils.
We will deliver common sense by giving councils the powers to choose whether they keep the committee system and ending Labour's policy of forcing councils to adopt a Cabinet or directly elected mayor.
We will deliver common sense by freeing councils from mountains of red tape and by abolishing in its current form the unpopular and bureaucratic Best Value regime.
We will deliver common sense by ensuring that councils are more accountable to the electorate for the money they spend and by ending Council Tax capping.
And we will deliver common sense by ending the constant upheavals and reforms that have taken place in local government and by providing a period of stability for councils to get on with the job they're supposed to be doing.
So you have my assurance. Under the next Conservative Government, there will be no more costly and disruptive reorganisations of local government.
That is our approach. Common sense Conservatism, based on trusting the people. It's an approach that can take us to victory in the local elections in May. And it's the approach that can take us to victory at the General Election too.
That is what I will be offering as we set out our programme for the General Election campaign. It will be a programme that will go further than any that has gone before to give people greater freedom and responsibility for their lives.
It will be nothing less than the most radical, exciting and imaginative Conservative programme for a generation, giving back to people greater freedom and responsibility for their everyday lives. It will reflect the common sense instincts of the mainstream majority of the British people. And it will offer a decisive shift away from the politics of the past four years.
It will reflect the common sense instincts of the mainstream majority on tax. People know that Governments cannot simply go on spending more than the nation can afford. They understand it because that's how they run their own budgets. But while that seems like common sense to you and me, it clearly isn't to Gordon Brown.
Not content with piling on his stealth taxes, the Chancellor has set a course for public spending that will eventually have to be paid for by even higher taxes. Gordon Brown claims that his policies are prudent. I say they are simply irresponsible.
The people of this country have been overtaxed for far too long and the time has come to give them back more of their own money. That is what the next Conservative Government will do. Unlike Labour, who tax more and deliver less, we will spend only what the nation can afford, and tax no more than we need.
All of this is common sense, and Conservatives will deliver common sense.
We will reflect the common sense instincts of the people on crime too by going to war against the criminal like never before. The British people aren't stupid. They see the connection between falling police numbers, morale at record lows and rises in violent crime. They know that there's something fundamentally wrong when thousands of serious criminals are let out of prison under Labour's special early release scheme, only to offend again. They know that crime will never be defeated when our criminal justice system often has more to say about the rights of the criminal rather than the rights of the victim.
So the next Conservative Government will end Labour's special early release scheme for serious criminals.
We will restore the cuts in police numbers to at least the levels they were at when we left office, and we will sweep aside the bureaucracy and political correctness that has so damaged police morale.
We will review the criminal justice system to ensure that the law is on the side of the victim, and not the criminal.
And we will make sure that when a sentence is handed down in court, then that is the actual sentence that is served in prison.
All of these things are common sense. And Conservatives will deliver common sense on crime.
It will reflect the common sense instincts of the British people on public services who sick and tired of listening to Labour's spin while the health service deteriorates, teachers shortages get worse and Britain grinds to a standstill.
The next Conservative Government will set our public servants free. We will establish free schools. We will end Labour's clinically distorting waiting list initiative, and let doctors and nurses get on with the job of treating patients according to their clinical needs. And we will stop Labour's policy of taxing drivers off the road without providing an alternative. We will deliver common sense on public services.
But we won't be able to do any of these things unless we maintain our ability to govern ourselves. That is why, at the coming election, we will reflect the common sense instincts of the British who want to be in Europe, not run by Europe and who want to keep the pound.
A few weeks ago Tony Blair was finally forced to admit that if Labour win he will set about scrapping the Pound within two years.
So be in no doubt. The next General Election will be the final battle for the pound. A vote for Labour or the Liberals is a vote to get rid of the pound. A vote for the Conservatives is a vote to keep the pound. And a vote for the Conservatives is a vote to stop more of our rights to govern our own affairs through the Supremacy of the Crown in Parliament being handed away. It will be a vote to maintain the independence and integrity of the United Kingdom.
All of this is common sense, and Conservatives will deliver common sense on Europe.
We will deliver common sense for the British people. And we will trust the people.
We will trust the instincts of the British people who want to see want a Government that doesn't spend more than the country can afford and doesn't tax more than it needs.
Who want a Government that will wage war on crime and deliver more PCs and less PC.
Who want to doctors to treat patients and who want to let teachers teach.
Who when it comes to asylum seekers want their country to be a safe haven not a soft touch.
Who believe in Britain and want to maintain the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Who want to be in Europe and not run by Europe.
Who want to keep the pound.
Who want their country back.
We say come with the Conservatives, and we will give you back your country.