Gordon Brown's attempt to haul Labour's general election campaign back on the rails suffered fresh disruption yesterday, after a keynote speech was interrupted by a heckler.
Days after his campaigning schedule was thrown into chaos when he had to apologise to a pensioner he had dismissed as "a bigoted woman", Labour supporters had to shout down the heckler who was berating Mr Brown during the speech in Sunderland.
Julian Borthwick, who complained about the lack of fast broadband in the North-east, and lack of access to Mr Brown, was eventually ejected from the National Glass Centre.
The ugly episode tarnished Mr Brown's attempt to launch a counter-offensive at the start of the final days of the campaign, after a week which has seen the initiative drift towards the Conservatives, leaving Labour in a struggle to take second place ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
Labour's faltering campaign was also damaged by the high-profile loss of support from two national newspapers, as The Guardian declared its support for the Lib Dems and The Times said it was backing the Tories.
Mr Brown, who yesterday met queries over the condition of Labour's campaign with the retort, "Wait and see – we are fighters", said he hoped the party's fortunes would improve because "policy is going to be the centre of people's discussions" now that the televised leaders' debates are over.
He later laid bare Labour's rescue strategy with a speech aggressively targeting Tory plans – warning that thousands of public-sector workers would lose their jobs and a million families would lose tax credits if David Cameron won the election on Thursday. Mr Brown said: "First they are targeting families on tax credits, then they are targeting teachers, police officers and people in public services, then they are targeting unemployed people, then they are targeting school-leavers, then they are targeting people who want to go to university.
"Then as a result of what they do they will be targeting small businesses and retailers. Soon there will be no family left that hasn't been targeted by the Tory budget."
The hostile line of attack was signalled in a memo from Lord Mandelson, who is in charge of the party's campaign strategy, revealing that Labour would conduct the final week of its campaign under the slogan "fighting for your future". Despite the poll evidence suggesting the Tories were establishing an unassailable lead, his rallying-cry to the party faithful insisted there was "deep public resistance to the idea of a Tory government".
In a bulletin to party members, Lord Mandelson added: "Mr Cameron may be seen as 'change', but it is change that alarms the public. He is also seen as remote .... Two reasons we can be confident are the two issues most often cited as people's main concerns. The economy. And public services. We need to press home that advantage."
In a direct attempt to stem the Lib Dems' advance, Lord Mandelson also made it clear that the campaign was "very much a three-horse race".
The Labour campaign team has also moved to raise the profile of other senior ministers, in a bid to take the heat off Mr Brown in the closing days. The Prime Minister had insisted on being firmly at the centre of an energetic campaign, despite concerns that it would distract attention from what Labour believes is a strong team of ministers, and increase the pressure on Mr Brown personally.
But the "bigot" affair, when Mr Brown's private views of Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy were broadcast via a radio microphone, has underlined the dangers of effectively investing all Labour's hopes in the performance of one man. One minister explained last night: "I think this will mean we give more prominence to other ministers, to take the heat off him and, frankly, give the party a better chance."
While Mr Brown will remain to the fore over the next five days, he will share the spotlight with colleagues including the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor.
However, despite the attempts to improve the Prime Minister's fortunes, he remains odds-on to announce his resignation as Labour leader before midnight on Friday, sparking a scramble for his job. Bookmakers William Hill claim a third-place finish in the election could spell the end for Mr Brown, but, even if he remains in the job, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, is expected to demand his resignation as the price of any coalition deal with Labour.
Opinion: What should Gordon Brown do now?
David Marquand, academic: It's all too late. Brown's performance in the leaders' debate reminded me of Stanley Baldwin's "safety first" strategy that lost the 1929 election. People no longer want safety, they want change. The Labour high command is hamstrung.
Lord Kinnock, former Labour leader: Brown needs to deploy his strength as a fine platform speaker. He needs to stress Labour's record on the economy and show how voting for an insubstantial government like David Cameron's will only compound our problems.
Michael Cockerell, political documentary maker: Anything can still happen. Just remember 1970 when Ted Heath looked dead in the water. Brown can't really promise anything new. So he could paint Alistair Darling as the safe pair of hands and make him the key figure in the last few days.
Lord Hurd, former cabinet minister: It's looking bleak. The Labour vote is in danger of fading away. Seeing Tony Blair staggering around on Friday was a reminder of times past. The only thing they can do now is stick to the strategy of instilling fear in voters.
Dame Margaret Drabble, author: Labour needs to stick to its guns on the economy and communicate its case for middle and lower income families. Highlight egalitarianism and a fair redistribution of wealth – and separate it from the Conservative ideals.
Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair's biographer: Brown needs to avoid doing anything desperate. He should keep plugging away, and acknowledge that he has done well to get the party up from the low base. He's performed better than people have expected and shown himself to be human.
John O'Farrell, satirist: Brown needs to stop trying to be Cheshire Charlie and just be authentic. He should remind voters about Labour's economic record and the money poured into schools and public services, and why it would not have happened under the Tories.
Lord Bell, former spin-doctor: Brown is finished. He was never elected and remained unpopular most of the time he was in power. Television has made this election a beauty parade, which has not really suited him either.
David Goodhart, editor, Prospect: Labour has run an incredibly unconfident campaign. Gordon Brown had three occasions to beat his chest about Labour's record. This last week should be about articulating why many improvements wouldn't have happened under the Tories.
Professor Ellis Cashmore, author of Celebrity/Culture: Brown's raddled power to mobilise the nation has gone. The debates have disclosed a sorrowful figure, smiling and shaking his head in exaggerated irony for the cameras.Reuse content