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Tories divided over how to take on Clegg

AT an election rally in Swindon yesterday, David Cameron told supporters he would “accentuate the positive” this week. It was a clear rebuff to those Tories who think the party should turn its guns on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Some polls now show the third party in the lead, although yesterday’s YouGov poll for the Sunday Times – which has Clegg’s party on 29 per cent, behind Labour on 30 and the Tories on 33 – seems more realistic.

The latest raft of polls all point to a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party, giving Gordon Brown the time and authority to try to build a Lib-Lab coalition. The party has already started trotting out big hitters like Lord Adonis and Peter Hain – who were both Liberals once – to launch a charm offensive.

Cameron has the most to lose from a resurgent third party. Not only are the Conservatives losing voter share, but they also hope to take several Lib Dem-held marginals in the South West.

Senior Conservatives are split over how to deal with the surge in Lib Dem support in the wake of last week’s leaders’ debate. Some think it was a mistake to agree to a debate that gave the previously unknown Clegg so much exposure, and now say the party must step up its attacks on the party leader.

Others, led by Cameron’s head of strategy Steve Hilton, think the real problem is that Cameron has not yet articulated his vision of a “big society”. They argue that he should use this week to flesh out a positive Tory message, not to launch a negative campaign against Clegg.

Cameron is likely to do both. He won’t attack the party leader directly, but will use this week’s leaders’ debate on foreign affairs to point out how Europhile Clegg really is. The Tories are hoping the nation’s love affair with the Liberals will then fizzle out.