Cameron struggles to make the running

As poll lead narrows, Tory leader admits his party has failed to win over the electorate / Fears of right-wing backlash as shadow minister admits Labour could win election

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

Suggested Topics
Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit