Conservatives were gathering tonight for their first party conference since reclaiming power, with the coalition’s public spending cuts set to dominate proceedings.
Chancellor George Osborne set the tone for the event in Birmingham by launching a ferocious attack on Labour for leaving Britain’s defence budget in “chaos”.
He also confirmed that he had struck a deal with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith for fundamental reform of the benefits system.
With just over a fortnight to go before the British government unveils the results of its comprehensive spending review (CSR), ministers have been locked in tough negotiations over cuts of up to 40% in their departments.
It emerged this week that Defence Secretary Liam Fox had written privately to David Cameron warning that “draconian” reductions being demanded by the Treasury would have “grave consequences”.
Mr Osborne admitted that discussions with the Ministry of Defence had been particularly difficult because its budgets were “the most chaotic, the most disorganised, the most overcommitted”.
Interviewed in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “We are going to have a bunch of kit that makes us extremely well prepared to fight the Russians on the north German plain. That’s not a war we are likely to face.”
But Mr Osborne said there was not much the coalition could do about the problems. “We are bound into contracts and that’s just a fact of life,” he added.
The chancellor also conceded there had been a “bust up” with Mr Duncan Smith over whether up-front funding could be found for benefit reforms to deliver savings in the longer term.
“We’ve had some good robust discussion,” Mr Osborne said. “But people will be impressed by the package we have jointly agreed and robust discussions have come to a good robust conclusion.”
Mr Cameron was due to arrive in Birmingham tonight before the real business of conference gets under way tomorrow.
Thousands of activists are due to stage protests against the coalition’s austerity measures, which they claim represent a “full scale assault on the living standards of working people”.
Right to Work campaigners will hold a rally at midday before marching through the centre of Birmingham.
Labour MP John McDonnell and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, are among speakers due to address the crowds.
They will be joined by campaigners from other organisations and political parties including the Green Party, the Respect party, Keep Our NHS Public and the Local Housing Allowance Reform Group.