Labour fears meltdown in marginals

Chancellor warns voters that his party's headline poll lead masks a deteriorating situation in many key seats
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Michael Howard could be Prime Minister at the end of the week if as few as one Labour voter in 10 decides to switch allegiance or abstain, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, claimed yesterday.

Michael Howard could be Prime Minister at the end of the week if as few as one Labour voter in 10 decides to switch allegiance or abstain, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, claimed yesterday.

His words reflected Labour's nervousness that the party's consistent lead in the opinion polls - eight percentage points, according to this paper's latest poll - is melting away in marginal seats, where Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have concentrated their campaigning. Other polls show Labour with a wafer-thin 3 per cent lead, with the Liberal Democrats showing strongly on all three.

One Labour strategist has accused the Tories of running a "ruthless" campaign whose main purpose has been to put Labour supporters off voting altogether, or to get them to defect to minor parties.

"There are three ways of getting a Tory government," the Chancellor said at a rally in Edinburgh yesterday. "You can vote Tory, you can vote for a third party and let the Tories in. Or you can fail to vote at all, and let the Tories in."

Tony Blair has admitted that the Iraq war will cost Labour votes, but in a written answer to a reader's question in today's Independent on Sunday, he too has emphasised that too many protest votes by disenchanted Labour supporters could let Mr Howard win. "I hope those who have supported us in 1997 and 2001 also consider what will happen if enough Labour supporters stay at home or decide to vote for the Lib Dems," he wrote.

"The result ... will be a Tory MP in your constituency and Michael Howard in Downing Street."

But Labour's fears are derided by the Liberal Democrats, who use a political broadcast tonight to accuse them of "crying wolf". "Clearly, Labour are worried about the Liberal Democrat challenge," Charles Kennedy says. "There is no danger of a Michael Howard government. People can go out and vote for what they believe in and agree with, confident in the knowledge that he's not going to be prime minister and that Tony Blair should certainly not enjoy another three-figure majority."

This week, Mr Kennedy will do his bit to keep Mr Howard out of Downing Street, and get him out of the Commons, by visiting Folkestone and Hythe, where the Tory leader defends a majority of 5,907 over the Liberal Democrat challenger. In a speech in Ashford, Kent, Mr Howard suggested that on Friday, "We could be waking up to a brighter day for Britain."

The Tory leader promised to "roll up his sleeves and get things done" if the Conservatives are elected on Thursday. He said he would outline eight "priority tasks" for a Tory government. "I believe in getting on with the job."

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