Jitters hit the Conservatives' high command yesterday as David Cameron conceded that the British public was not yet convinced by his leadership or the prospect of a Tory government, and did not necessarily even understand what the party stood for.
Making a keynote speech to party faithful, Mr Cameron admitted that time was running out to win over a sceptical public. With Gordon Brown expected to name within weeks the date of the general election, dismay is growing in senior opposition ranks over the rapid evaporation of their previously handsome opinion-poll lead over Labour. They fear Mr Cameron faces a right-wing backlash if he fails to lead the party to victory in the contest expected on 6 May.
A survey yesterday put the Tories just two percentage points ahead – enough to deliver more seats to Labour than the Conservatives in a hung parliament – and Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, conceded it was a "distinct possibility" that Mr Brown could win the election.
In his last major speech before the election campaign, Mr Cameron made a remarkable confession of failure over his party's ability to get its message across. He conceded that more than four years after he became leader, voters were still unclear about Tory policies and principles. He also committed himself to clearing up in their election manifesto the confusion over Tory plans on tax breaks for married couples .
"We all know the British people have still got some big questions they want to ask us and that we have got to answer," he told his party's spring forum in Brighton. "They want to know what sort of party we are. They want to know what we stand for, they want to know the changes we will make and the difference those changes will make. And they want to know some things about me. Are you really up for it?Are you really going to make a difference?"
Mr Cameron acknowledged that the party faced a "real fight" at the election and that its result would be close. "They don't hand general election victories and governments on a plate to people in this country, and quite right too," he said.
Promising frankness, radicalism and a "sense of optimism" from his leadership, he insisted he was equal to the office of Prime Minister.
"Every day that goes by, I feel more confident that I have what it takes, with this team behind me, to turn this country round and get it moving again," he said.
Mr Cameron slapped down suggestions from party right-wingers that the party must focus on more traditional Tory issues, and insisted: "This modern Conservative Party made its choice and it's never going back."
He caught shadow cabinet members off-guard by promising for the first time that the party would spell out in detail its proposals over taxation of married couples in its pitch to the voters at the election.
The Tory leader pledged to offer the "most family-friendly manifesto that any party has produced in British political history". He added: "We're going to set out how we're going to recognise marriage in the tax system."
Two months ago Mr Cameron was forced to admit he had "messed up" over the Tories' flagship commitment to a marriage tax break after it appeared that he had downgraded it to an "aspiration".
The confusion – the first in a series of Tory gaffes that appear to have contributed to their slide in the polls – has dogged the party since, with the party refusing point-blank to produce more detail on the issue.
Yesterday Conservative sources denied that Mr Cameron, who addressed yesterday's conference without notes, had blundered over the manifesto announcement and said it had always been their intention to present their plans at the election.
The announcement was the major surprise in Mr Cameron's closing address to a downbeat eve-of-conference gathering.
Senior Tory MPs are worried that their message is failing to resonate with the voters – particularly after such a dismal succession of headlines for the Prime Minister – and are privately preparing for the possibility of a hung parliament.
One said: "It's hard to see what's changed in the last few days. My fear is that we're being affected by a feeling that our message isn't as sharp as it needs to be."
Dr Fox went further and acknowledged the possibility of a Labour victory in the forthcoming election.
He told Sky News: "We have always known that to win this general election would require a big swing, bigger than we have had at any time since the 1930s. So there is a distinct possibility that people could wake up with Gordon Brown on the steps of Number 10 for another five years."
But one senior Cameron ally insisted: "We mustn't get blown off course by opinion polls. They shouldn't make any difference to our approach. There is no doubt we have a mountain to climb. But it is achievable."
Another source argued that the Tories were being hit by general "cynicism" among voters who felt let down after the high hopes that accompanied Tony Blair and New Labour into government in 1997.
They were suspicious, the source added, about whether another opposition party could deliver on another promise of change.
A private Tory briefing paper seen by The Independent gives a warning that the party needs to achieve largest number of gains by a Conservative opposition since 1931.
Those seats include 18 constituencies that the party has not won for a quarter of a century, at the height of Mrs Thatcher's power. The briefing paper also cautions that the party will enter the election campaign from a "historically weak starting point".
Senior Tories do not dispute that Labour is closing the gap, although they also doubted whether their lead had fallen to just two percentage points. Mr Cameron's spokeswoman commented that yesterday's polls had "blown apart Labour's strategy of presenting itself as the underdog".
The Conservatives now intend to spend the remaining few weeks before the election is called on its six key themes: the economy, enterprise, helping the family, the NHS, raising school standards, and changing politics. This week's opening phase of campaigning will be on education.
A Tory manifesto: Cameron's speech by buzzword
* Country: 52
* Change/s/ing: 32
* Economy/economic: 16
* Britain: 15
* Work/ing: 14
* Family/families: 12
* Society: 11
* Deficit: 9
* Frank/ness: 8
* Radical/ism: 8
* Brown: 8
* Power: 7
* Imagine: 7
* Modernise: 6
* Debt: 6
* Genius: 5
* NHS: 7
* Afghanistan: 3
* Broken society: 3
* Armed forces: 1
* Forces of hell: 1
* Dangerous dance of death: 1
* Patriotic duty: 1
* Incompetence: 1
* Immigration: 1