Brown still sees his economic record as the way to electoral salvation

As Lord Mandelson's speech at Labour's latest "launch event" was abruptly punctuated by the sound of a Volkswagen Golf ploughing into a nearby bus shelter yesterday morning, the gathered journalists could scarcely believe they had been presented with such a ready-made metaphor for Gordon Brown's last week on the campaign trail.

Even without the intervention of Gillian Duffy and a stray radio mic, the tactics deployed by Labour as it attempted to rescue itself from one of the most disappointing results in modern times had begun to smack of desperation. The appearance of the Prime Minister alongside an Elvis impersonator last Saturday began a week that saw him snubbed by a children's cartoon character, before being plunged into the bigot-gate fiasco.

But the final days of the campaign will see Mr Brown turn to safer ground as strategists attempt to focus on what they see as his great strength. "What you'll be seeing is us putting the economy front and centre from now until election day," said a senior aide. "We realise we have some work to do and it's going to be tough, but we will be concentrating on the strength he has on the economy."

They have also promised not to hide the Prime Minister away after the horrors of Rochdale. "It wouldn't make a lot of sense to hide away a candidate who you believe is the right man for the job," said a No.10 insider. In a bid to show their leader is not cowed, Mr Brown will be putting in the miles, completing quick-fire tours of whole regions.

To complement a theme of Mr Brown's experience in handling the fragile economy, the party will also highlight the "risk" posed by backing Mr Cameron. It is an argument favoured by Alastair Campbell, designed to capitalise on the apparent lack of enthusiasm among many thinking of voting for the Tory leader. Senior figures will also repeat a "never say never" mantra that the polls remain extremely volatile.

Last night, Mr Brown attempted to offer an explanation to hid disastrous reaction to Mrs Duffy, who had questioned his policies on immigration. "I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from this country who were foreigners," he told Jeremy Paxman for an interview shown on BBC 2 last night. "People say things in the heat of the moment when you get angry and you have got to apologise for that."

Mr Brown also revealed he would slash spending on Britain's roads and housing from next year as he was pressed on what cuts he would make should he win the election. "We have renovated about two million houses over the period of the last 13 years. I do not see the need for us to continue with such big renovation programmes," he said.

The final straight of the campaign will see Lord Mandelson's "underdog strategy" reach its climax. Mr Brown showed his intent yesterday during a visit to Loughborough University. His speech to students, athletes and gymnasts was peppered with regular references to the need to find "inner strength". He invoked the spirit of Eric Liddle, the British Olympian featured in Chariots of Fire. "You have to try harder, work longer, and dig deeper. That's what I've got to do over the next few days," he said. In an observation approaching a mea culpa, he recalled that as a member of his school's relay team, he had dropped the baton. "You never forget that," he said.

A rearguard action in those marginals, designed to snuff out the Liberal Democrat surge, will be the focus of the closing days. Ministers will be dispatched and ordered to push the final week slogan: "It's your future, vote for it". They will also tell voters that backing Nick Clegg could let the Tories in through the back door. "The one thing Labour strategists are most determined to communicate is the risk of a spike in the Lib Dem vote depressing the Labour vote and leaving the Tories to win by standing still," said a senior party figure.

The tactics were rehearsed by Mr Brown in a message to party members issued last night. "There are more undecided voters in this election than in any I have ever been involved in," he said. "We now have less than one week to persuade them to vote for us."

Five days to go

Reasons to be cheerful

A high number of undecided voters suggests David Cameron has not "sealed the deal" with the electorate.

Reasons to be fearful

Still a real possibility of finishing third behind the Liberal Democrats, which would be the party's biggest electoral disaster for generations.

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