The week the gloves came off in the 2015 election as parties try to break deadlock

What a bizarre end to an extraordinary week, during which the general election campaign was turned upside down: on Saturday the nation awoke to news that the Tories would pump another £8bn a year into the NHS – just like that.

To explain how such a huge sum would be conjured up – given the pressure on public finances – health secretary Jeremy Hunt did a turn on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme. The softly spoken minister insisted, a little tentatively, the money would be found from the proceeds of future economic growth. It wasn’t in the bank yet, he suggested, but soon would be if the Tories won on 7 May. “Look at the evidence as to what has happened to the British economy. In the end a strong NHS needs a strong economy. If you are going to tear up the economic plan, then that is the biggest risk for funding to the NHS.”

Voters had to trust that a Tory party, which had turned the economy round in government, would be as good as its word. (The same party that promised in 2010 not to introduce any more “top down” reorganisation of the NHS, but then did so within months of gaining office, interviewer Mishal Husain pointed out.) Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb, who worked in Hunt’s team, promptly poured scorn on the Tories’ latest “unfunded spending commitment”, while Labour said that the Conservatives were making “fantasy promises”.

Within a few days, David Cameron’s party had also promised to freeze rail fares for five years and exhume the long-buried “big society” by offering employees of companies with a staff of at least 250 people, including those in the public sector, the right to three days of paid leave each year to volunteer. Neither plan came with a price tag.

A campaign that had begun a few weeks ago with the Conservatives accusing Labour of profligacy – of “crashing the economy” by spending and borrowing too much – and of being led by a man too weak to take tough decisions, had turned on its head. Suddenly the Tories, spooked by a midweek batch of poor polls and a sense that their campaign lacked any “feelgood” tunes, seemed to be throwing money around like confetti to please the people. Labour, meanwhile, was taking the moral high ground on spending, accusing the Conservatives of playing fast and loose with the nation’s finances as they desperately tried to breathe life into their election campaign. “It’s like they are now reading out our lines, the ones we were supposed to use on the doorsteps,” said one Tory activist on Friday.

There is no doubt that the Tories have rethought their strategy, somewhat hurriedly, in recent days – although not in a way that has impressed many in their own ranks. “The trouble is it looks like we have done it all in a bit of a panic,” said one senior Tory MP. For some time there has been concern in the Conservative party that the strategy devised by Australian strategist Lynton Crosby is too narrowly focused on the twin themes of the economy and Cameron’s leadership. Many MPs have complained in private that they have not had enough to say to working people about how their lives would improve after austerity.

Last month the chief whip, Michael Gove, issued a coded criticism, writing in the Guardian that the Conservatives would only win the general election if they could show the electorate that they were the “warriors for the dispossessed”. The party needed to show it had a soul, that it cared about more than mere wealth creation and the rich. On Saturday Lord Ashcroft, the party’s former deputy chairman, argued that Cameron had not changed the party enough to win a majority on 7 May, and suggested the campaign – including the regular throwing of insults at Ed Miliband – was ineffective and a bag of contradictions. Cameron had “failed to fix the brand while the sun was shining” and had not addressed the common voters’ perception that “the Tories were not on their side and were not to be trusted with public services like the NHS”, Ashcroft wrote on ConservativeHome. “The Tories now score no better on these measures than they did at the last election. If too many voters see the Tories as the nasty party, they seem unlikely to win anybody over by ramping up the attacks on Miliband.”

Such concerns were confined to relatively few until recently, but spread like wildfire among Tories last week after Labour got into its stride and the nasty party, to which Aschroft refers, bared its teeth.

Labour confidence started to build on Monday after Tony Blair, whose support for Miliband has at times seemed less than enthusiastic, stepped in to help the campaign, arguing that it would be the Tories, not Labour, who would deliver economic chaos, by holding an in-out referendum on EU membership. Blair’s intervention and unqualified praise for Miliband was effective in itself. It also boosted party morale. “It is important to have Tony involved to remind us what it is like to win,” said a senior Miliband aide.

Then came Labour’s announcement that it would end rules that allow non-doms – UK residents whose permanent home, or domicile, is outside of the UK – to avoid paying tax on income earned abroad. As the Labour plan was widely welcomed, the Tories were left defending the right of the rich to pay less tax in a way that Conservative commentators could see sent out all the wrong messages. One Tory source said: “Labour just seemed to win the moral argument.”

Throughout last week the Conservatives have been edgy. Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and former Tory adviser, tweeted: “If voters have to choose between an individualist right and a big-govt left they’ll choose the left.” On Thursday, in what looked like an attempt to divert attention from the non-dom story, which was running well for Labour, defence secretary Michael Fallon tore into Miliband, saying that he had “stabbed his brother in the back to become Labour leader” and would do the same to his country by abandoning the Trident nuclear deterrent in a secret deal with the SNP. Even the Daily Telegraph described the comments as ill-judged and counterproductive, “adding to the feeling the Conservatives are being too negative”. On Thursday night, Tory worries turned to frenzied panic for a few hours as three polls showed Labour in a clear lead, with one even suggesting Miliband’s personal ratings were now higher than for Cameron. Hours later, however, two more polls put the Tories narrowly ahead. Labour elation faded and Conservative panic subsided, but the last few days have altered the moods in the two main parties.

Labour is more united. Its people increasingly believe Miliband’s central messages on fairness are not only right, but shine a light on all that is wrong with the Tory offer. It is not that Labour people now think they will win – but that they believe they could. “We are still the underdogs in this fight, but we are very focused,” said one senior aide to Miliband. The Tories and their supporters in the press, on the other hand, are the ones privately questioning their messages and wondering whether it is too late to change tack by returning to compassionate Conservativism and the big society and spraying money around as if the deficit didn’t matter.

Ashcroft appears to believe little will change in the polls between now and polling day, and it is too late for campaign U-turns to work. “Parties cannot change in four weeks what they have failed to change in five years” is the headline on his latest article. Lucy Powell, vice-chair of Labour’s election team, told the Observer she doubts either party will race ahead in the polls before 7 May. “I am not sure that anyone is going to get to pull away necessarily. We certainly take confidence in the way we are doing our campaigning, the way Ed is performing and the underlying trends. But we always knew this was going to be a tough race, a tough election to fight.” Powell says Labour is, however, doing very well among young women. “If you look at what has happened in the last couple of weeks in terms of the groups that are breaking for us, younger women, under 40, are much more strongly breaking for Labour. Women are much more likely to come our way. You could say the flip of that is [the Tories] have a stronger base among men. But we see a particularly mobile group that are younger women, often with smaller children.”

That certainly seems to be the case in parts of London, where Labour is performing strongly. In Tory-held Harrow East, on London’s northern fringe, Labour has leapfrogged the Conservatives to a four-point lead in the latest Ashcroft poll. If the snapshot is correct, then the incumbent MP, Bob Blackman (who won the seat from Labour’s Tony McNulty by more than 3,000 votes in 2010), looks set to lose his place in the Commons to Uma Kumaran, Labour’s energetic 28-year-old candidate. The poll showed 47% of women backing the Labour candidate, compared with 38% for Blackman. “Women are enthused when they see another woman on the doorstep,” says Kumaran. Paul Goodman, the former Tory MP, says the Conservatives are too male-orientated, and should show off their star women more in the campaign. “If you’ve got a hard message, it helps for it to be spoken softly – especially to women voters. Theresa May, Nicky Morgan and some of the other senior Tory women should be more front of shop.”

Despite the Tories’ internal problems, they will be cheered by an Opinium poll for the Observer, which puts them two points ahead of Labour. But the polls have been bobbing up and down in recent weeks, showing narrrow leads for the Tories one day, and Labour ahead the next. The election is neck and neck. And it is Labour that has emerged from early campaign skirmishes the more buoyed up, and the Tories who have seemed to be reacting to events rather than controlling them.

This week the three main parties will launch their manifestos. Powell said Labour’s would be about families and fairness. The party will announce plans to help middle-class families with ferrying children from schools to music, drama and sports clubs after hours, as part of their guarantee of 8am to 6pm care for primary schoolchildren. The Conservatives are worried that their offering may lack similar broad appeal. On Thursday – what may go down as the Tories’ “wobbly Thursday” – Montgomerie tweeted: “I worry No10 has too many eggs in the Miliband-is-unelectable basket. Next week’s manifesto needs to offer some vision.”

Powered by article was written by Toby Helm, Daniel Boffey, Ashley Cowburn, for The Observer on Sunday 12th April 2015 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010