Senior conservatives have been warned not to behave as if a general election victory is now "in the bag", after polls suggested that David Cameron had "won" the final of the three televised leaders' debates. Mr Cameron issued a public warning on a campaigning trip in Derby yesterday, insisting: "The election is far from over. We're taking nothing for granted."
He added that the Conservatives have six more days to "make the argument" that will win over the high number of electors who do not appear yet to have decided how they will vote. One of his staff admitted: "We don't feel that we have 'sealed the deal' with the voters yet."
The need for caution was illustrated when a Harris poll for today's Daily Mail put the Tories on 33 per cent, only one point ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 32 per cent, with Labour trailing on 24 per cent. Such an outcome, if repeated on polling day, would leave Mr Cameron 47 seats short of an overall majority.
In the next few days, the Tories will strain every sinew to see off the continuing threat from Nick Clegg's party in order to win outright. Mr Cameron will make "raids" into Liberal Democrat territory in areas such as the South-west, while the Tories will step up their warnings that a hung parliament would mean political and economic instability at a critical time for the country.
In the hope of overcoming public cynicism about the promises that politicians make at election time, the Conservatives are sending out millions of copies of a leaflet made up to look like a legal document, signed by Mr Cameron, which he calls a "contract" with the voters. The idea was road-tested in the Norwich North by-election last July. "Contracts" will be issued on different issues such as schools and hospitals. The move has echoes of the "contract with the people" offered by Tony Blair in 1997, whose playbook has been studied carefully by the Cameroons during their drive to modernise the Conservatives.
The new "contract" will be the Tories' main weapon until polling day on Thursday. Strategists hope they will sharpen the party's message after complaints that the "big society" theme of the Tory manifesto is too woolly. "It doesn't play well on the doorstep," one candidate said.
The Tories hope that the contract will help the party regain the trust of voters following the MPs' expenses scandal. Mr Cameron said: "I think one of the reasons why people are so cynical and apathetic about politics and politicians is elections come along and we all make these promises and then nothing ever changes, nothing even happens.
"This contract will set out our side of the bargain, what we're going to do. And I urge people to read it, to hold us to it, to make sure we deliver it."
The "contract" is being sent to 2 million households in seats the Conservatives hope to gain next week. A million more will be handed out in key locations.
Some of the accompanying promises are clear enough – such as the commitments to cut the number of MPs by 10 per cent, and slice 5 per cent off ministers' pay.
Others are sufficiently vague to leave an incoming Conservative government with freedom to endeavour without being caught out breaking a pledge. For instance, the contract says that the Conservatives will "cut wasteful government spending" without saying how or by how much. Promises to "act now on the national debt" and "build a greener economy" are equally unspecific.
They also suggest that Mr Cameron is still sensitive to the accusation that the Conservatives are the "nasty" party who will slash public services and let the worst-off suffer. The contract includes emphatic promises to protect pensions and other free perks for pensioners, and to increase spending on the NHS.
Yesterday, for the benefit of the cameras, Mr Cameron signed a specially enlarged copy of a "contract for better schools" which promises more graduate teachers, better discipline, a "more rigorous" curriculum and exam system, and more choice.
Five days to go
Reasons to be cheerful
Hope they have secured momentum at the critical time in the campaign after David Cameron won the final TV debate. The rise of Liberal Democrats could also help them by splitting the anti-Tory vote in key Tory/Labour marginals. This might mean they could pick up some unexpected seats on Thursday.
Reasons to be fearful
They have not sealed the deal and are not winning enough support in the opinion polls to be sure of an overall majority. Many voters are still undecided and what happens over the last few days of the campaign will be crucial. As the Gillian Duffy incident, above, showed – elections can be shaped by the unexpected.Reuse content