PM Defends Budget In Scotland Fightback

Jon Craig, chief political correspondent, in Troon

David Cameron has issued a robust defence of the Chancellor's Budget as he attempted to launch a Tory fightback in Scotland.

In a lively speech at the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Troon, he said the Budget had been "brave" and the 50p tax cut "bold".

The Prime Minister also strongly defended the Government's welfare reforms, claiming the Tories were the only party with the guts to make the changes.

Mr Cameron came to Troon amid an acrimonious battle with Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond , over the timing of a referendum on Scottish independence.

Branding the SNP leader more like "Chicken Run" than "Braveheart", he challenged Mr Salmond to "stop dithering" over the date of the referendum.

But while his attack on the SNP was predictable, it was remarkable that the Prime Minister felt the need to devote a large proportion of his speech to defending the more controversial measures in the Budget.

He didn't mention the row over the " granny tax ", George Osborne's freezing of preferential tax allowances for pensioners, but he stressed that retired people were getting the biggest ever increase in the state pension.

Defending the 50p tax cut, Mr Cameron said: "If you want to have a dynamic, enterprise economy, if you want to attract the very brightest and best here, then you just cannot have the highest top rate of tax in Europe.

"And let's tell the truth about the 50p top rate of tax. For 13 years the Labour government didn't bring in 50p tax. When did they introduce it? One month before the election they knew they were going to lose.

"This wasn't about raising money. It wasn't about fairness. It was about making a political point, plain and simple."

Mr Cameron said the thing he was most proud of in the Budget was taking almost two million people out of tax altogether, though he didn't say this had been a key Liberal Democrat demand inside the coalition.

Attacking opponents of the Government's welfare reforms, he said: "If you want to keep the welfare system as the woeful, pitiful factory of hopelessness it is today, if you want to back away from the big decisions that we need to fix our society, then vote Labour or SNP, because believe me it's only this party that will ever have the guts change anything."

In his attack on Mr Salmond, the Prime Minister said: "The Saltire is the flag of a proud nation, not the symbol of one party."

And on the timing of a referendum, which will be fiercely fought out between Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond when a Government consultation period ends in May, the PM challenged the SNP leader: "Stop dithering and start delivering."

Throughout his speech, which was more upbeat and passionate than some he has made to Scottish Tories in recent years, Mr Cameron repeatedly referred to the scale of the task his party faces in its attempts to fight back in Scotland.

The party's one MP in Scotland, David Mundell, doubles up as a Scotland Office Minister and party chairman.

It's also noticeable in Troon that many of the keynote speakers at this conference are Scotland-born MPs and ministers who represent English constituencies at Westminster.

But the mood is remarkably buoyant, considering the party's plight in Scotland, and Tory ministers are hopeful of winning seats off the Liberal Democrats, if not the SNP, under new boundaries at the next general election.

On May 3, Scotland will be the UK's second biggest political battleground, after the London mayoral election, with elections for every local authority north of the border.

Realistically, the main battle in Scotland is between the SNP and Labour, but the Tories hope to do better than in recent years.

The longer term battle in Scotland, whatever the date of the referendum, is over the future of the union.

After leaving Troon and visiting Dumbarton, the Prime Minister and new Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson were heading for Glasgow in a bid to influence Scottish public opinion by lunching with the editors of Scotland's newspapers.