David Cameron
David Cameron attempted to rally supporters at his party's spring conference, telling them: "This is a battle for Britain's future." Reuters

David Cameron attempted to draw a line under his party's recent setbacks by telling supporters at the Tory party spring conference: "We are here to fight. We are here to win."

The prime minister sought to reassure grassroots Conservatives after the party's disastrous showing at last month's Eastleigh by-election, saying the party had "never been more up for the task of turning our country around".

Cameron tried to rally the party faithful with a rousing, patriotic message that was interpreted as a call to arms for party activists, and an attempt to head off those seeking a shift to the right after the disastrous poll showing, in which the Conservatives were beaten into third place by Ukip.

"We are people who love our country, who believe in Britain's greatness, and believe in restoring it," Cameron said, adding that it was an "honour" to serve the country in its "hour of need".

"This is a battle for Britain's future we are engaged in," he said. "So let the message go out from this hall and this party: We are here to fight. We are here to win. And we have never been more up for the task of turning our country around."

He invoked the memory of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, saying he adhered to the same tradition of Tory values.

"We are for the ladder, let all try their best to climb," he said, condemning the Labour party for wanting "the little people to stay little".

"We want people to climb up through their own efforts, yes, but in order to climb up they need the ladder to be there in the first place, the family that nurtures them, the school that inspires them, the opportunities there for them," he said.

"Great Conservatives down the generations have put those ladders in place: when Churchill invented the labour exchanges that helped people into work, when Macmillan built new homes, when Thatcher fired up enterprise so people could start their own businesses.

"That is what we're doing in the Conservative Party right now."

He promised to foster "aspiration", a theme he returned to several times in his speech, saying he wanted to focus on what the party was doing for young people.

He pledged an extra £150 million in funding for sports tuition in schools. Critics immediately countered that the sum was still less than that planned by Labour and later scrapped by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

"There are far too many people in their teens and twenties who are right at the start of their lives - but can feel it's the end of the line," said Cameron.

"No one's believed in them. No one's given them a chance. That's what I'm determined to change.

"We are building an aspiration nation, a country where it's not who you know or where you're from but who you are and where you're determined to go."

He joked that he had played rugby with Olympics chief Seb Coe at Millwall football club before making his speech, saying it was "the only time I'm going to beat him in a race doing anything".

He added: "The global race is not just about GDP. It's about saying to the mum who's worried about her children's future: We are building a country where there is a future, so your kids won't have to get on a plane to get on in life, they can make it right here in Britain.

"It's what this party's always been about - aspiration."

The one-day conference will also hear from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Theresa May.