The Conservative leader David Cameron is being forced to rethink his election strategy amid signs of a mid-campaign wobble by the Tories after the surge in support for the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
The Tory campaign was described as "the most inept in living memory" by one public-relations expert with Tory links. Conservative grass-roots activists are being consulted by ConservativeHome, a website for party supporters, over how Mr Cameron should counter the threat from the Liberal Democrats
Mr Cameron underlined the jitters felt in the Tory leadership by ditching a party election broadcast attacking Gordon Brown in favour of one with a personal message for voters about the dangers of a hung parliament – dubbed "Cameron: the movie".
But the decision appeared to backfire last night when Labour claimed that seven statements made by Mr Cameron in the TV broadcast had been plagiarised from Mr Clegg's speeches and broadcasts. They included saying that people were "desperate for change", that politicians should not just tell people "what they want to hear" and that the country needed "energy and optimism".
Lord Mandelson, who heads Labour's election strategy, said: "David Cameron has spent four years saying what he thinks people want to hear and now, when he believes people want to hear Nick Clegg, he starts imitating him. David Cameron has lost his real voice, assuming he had one in the first place."
A Tory spokesman said of Lord Mandelson's attack: "This is a bit rich coming from a man who speaks with a forked tongue every time he opens his mouth." However, one senior Tory party insider admitted they were finding it "very difficult" to mount a counter-attack on Mr Clegg. "There is a very difficult line to tread. Some people do want us to take a shot at Mr Clegg but we don't want to look as though we are just old-style politicians knocking bits off each other. You have to be more subtle than that," said a Tory source.
Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, called on Mr Cameron to "puncture the Clegg bubble" before it was too late, saying the Tory leader had been "shy" about talking up his own proposals "for fear that it would frighten the electors". He urged Mr Cameron "not to hang around because there is a Clegg bubble and the imperative is to puncture the bubble before 6 May – the 7th would be too late."
Nick Wood, a former Tory spin doctor, said: "Tory high command must find a way of demonstrating that Nick Clegg's claims to represent a new kind of politics are spurious."
Mr Cameron insisted he would not change his strategy by stooping to "negative" campaigning and would not "lash out" at the Liberal Democrats. "I am going to redouble the positive, accentuate everything positive we want to do for our country," he said.
However, the blunt-speaking party chairman Eric Pickles challenged Mr Clegg to answer 10 questions on which the Tories believe the Liberal Democrats are vulnerable, such as law and order, defence and immigration. "The public should be aware of Liberal Democrat plans not to protect the NHS, to let burglars and drug dealers off the hook and to allow an illegal immigrant amnesty," said a Tory spokesman.
Mr Pickles said the Liberal Democrats supported plans to declare an amnesty for 600,000 illegal immigrants. On crime, he said the police believed the Liberal Democrat plans for short-term prison sentences would mean 58,000 criminals serving sentences in the community.
On defence, Mr Clegg was committed to abandoning Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system and had so far failed to announce how they would replace it.
The Tory chairman said voters needed to know that the Liberal Democrats planned to use the council tax system to charge extra taxes on all homes worth more than £2m, the proposed "mansion tax", which did not reflect an ability to pay.
Mr Cameron suggested that the Liberal Democrats' surge in the polls was the result of desperate voters "grabbing on to anything new" in their search for a solution to the country's problems.
He said the election campaign now needed "frankness and directness" and he would provide that. Answering suggestions he should "take the gloves off" and be himself, and that his "big society" idea was "waffle", he said: "What you saw just now was Cameron being Cameron and, if you don't like it, I am afraid there isn't another Cameron.
"That is the one, that is what there is and that is what you are going to get."