Tories aim for backdoor win with defeatist campaign, says Labour

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Michael Howard was accused of trying to sneak into Downing Street by the back door by hinting that the Tories could not win the general election.

Michael Howard was accused of trying to sneak into Downing Street by the back door by hinting that the Tories could not win the general election.

There is growing alarm in Labour circles about a change of strategy by Mr Howard, who has appealed to people to "send a message" to Tony Blair instead of urging them to actively vote Conservative. The Tory leader has warned voters against "sleepwalking" to another Labour government and even suggested that his party was 2-0 down at half-time.

Labour claims the Conservatives' "we-can't-win" approach has been imported by Lynton Crosby, the Tories' campaign director, who has used it in his native Australia. In 1995, his Liberal Party urged voters to "send a message" to Paul Keating, the Labour prime minister, through a state election in Queensland, paving the way for his surprise defeat in a general election the following year.

Yesterday, Wayne Swan, Australia's shadow Chancellor, dismissed claims by the Tories that Mr Howard's "2-0 down" statement was a slip of the tongue. He said: "It's a deliberate campaign tactic that the conservatives with Lynton Crosby have run time and again in Australia. What they say is: 'Look we can't win this election so just cast a protest vote in selective constituencies. It will be safe because Tony Blair will still be Prime Minister after the election.'

"But of course the protest vote gets out of control and... the electorate gets the result that they don't expect."

Mr Blair said the Tory strategy was to try to make sure Labour supporters do not turn out to vote by giving the impression that the Tories were unlikely to win.

He said: "What they want to do is to say to people, 'look, we are not really going to form the government, so why don't you just send a message?' Their idea is to hold their vote firm and depress ours."

The Tories tried a similar tactic during the 2001 election, running an advert urging people to "prick" Mr Blair's "bubble". But it did not stop Labour winning a second landslide.

The Tories insisted that Mr Howard's "2-0 down" remark was intended to show that his party could win and that his "send a message" statement was intended as a "wake-up call" to voters.

Mr Howard said: "I am convinced that we can win this election and I am convinced that it is vitally important for the future of our country that we do."

It appears that the Tories are playing down immigration after signs it has not helped them. This week, they will focus on health, education and crime, but will return to immigration before 5 May.

A MORI survey found that 65 per cent of people who voted Labour in 2001 will back the party this time; 11 per cent moved to the Liberal Democrats, 6 per cent moved to the Tories and 4 per cent have moved to another party. But 14 per cent are undecided, say they will not vote or refused to answer the question.

Paul Kenny, the GMB's acting general secretary, said: "Disillusioned Labour voters who are thinking of protesting by voting for other parties or staying at home could be sleepwalking the rest of us into a Tory government."

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