THE Tory party is "2-0 down at half-time" but could go on to win the election, Michael Howard told his supporters.
With just ten days to go before polling day, the Conservative leader yesterday moved to energise his core vote by being frank about the party’s prospects.
Mr Howard admitted what opinion polls have said since the election was called - the Conservatives are trailing and will face defeat unless the party’s supporters get behind them.
However, he was more upbeat about the chance of victory than many commentators, telling the ITV news "Ballot Box Jury": "I am a football fan. You often find if you are a football fan there is a team that might be two goals down at half-time, [but] they win the game."
Mr Howard predicted the Tories could go on to win the election in the same dramatic way that Chelsea had snatched a victory against the odds - and against his own team.
"I went to the Carling Cup final a few weeks back to watch my team Liverpool play Chelsea," said the Tory leader.
"We were ahead until the last ten minutes and then we were screwed. So the election is not over until 5 May, and I am confident we can win that."
Mr Howard’s rallying call came as the Prime Minister faced fresh attacks on his integrity over the war.
Both the Tory leader and the Liberal Democrats have urged voters who do not necessarily support their parties to give the Prime Minister a bloody nose by turning to them.
However, the Iraq war did not come up when Mr Howard was questioned on ITV. Instead, the Tory leader came under fire over his hardline immigration stance.
Leela Soma, an immigrant from India now living in Scotland, said: "As a first generation immigrant I think I find it quite worrying that you are moving your party to the right."
She added: "Your policies are basically playing on the fears of the people. I think you have really become a single-issue party."
The Conservatives started the day with a launch of their business manifesto, which was soon overshadowed by the row over Iraq.
And while the party made the case for lessening the burden on business by scrapping red tape, Labour seized on a number of senior Tories missing from the Conservative line-up.
The mystery over the whereabouts of John Redwood, the Conservative’s rederegulation minister, was pointed out by opponents.
Fraser Kemp, Labour’s campaign spokesman, said Mr Redwood appeared to be "kept in the cupboard".
"The Tories seem to have transported John Redwood to a different planet for the duration of this campaign," he said.
Labour also contrasted Mr Howard’s economic policies unfavourably with those of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor said: "While Labour will lock in stability that is the top priority of business, the reckless and irresponsible Conservative proposals - that Mrs Thatcher would never have countenanced and that as Shadow Chancellor I could never endorse - would put stability at risk."
Yesterday the Tories appeared to acknowledge they were on the back foot when the party temporarily dropped the slogan "Are you thinking what we’re thinking?".
Instead, emblazoned on the Conservatives’ lecterns was the message: "Taking a stand on the issues that matter."
Mr Howard’s reliance on "dog-whistle politics" - pitching policies at a level that will resonate with core voters on traditional Tory issues such as immigration - has so far failed to pay off, with the latest polls putting the Conservatives between three and six points behind Labour.
Bookmakers also predicted a Labour majority of 81, up from 64.
But the Tories hope that if a Labour victory is seen as a foregone conclusion, many disillusioned Labour supporters could vote Tory in protest at Mr Blair.
For this reason, Mr Blair has been equally keen to play down the likelihood of a third Labour term. On the campaign trail in Bristol, Mr Blair issued a warning about disenchanted Labour voters turning to the Tories. "The danger is that they can let Conservatives in by the back door. Never mind what the opinion polls say, the thing that counts is going to be in constituencies, often marginal constituencies, where a few hundred votes or a few thousand either way can decide the course of this election."
"The only way of getting a Labour government on May 6 is to vote for it on May 5."
But if Mr Blair wins the election with an unconvincing majority, both he and Mr Howard will face relegation.