With the general election campaign entering its final hours, a rift appeared to be emerging over whether to urge Labour voters to back the Liberal Democrats in seats where they are in a two-way fight with the Tories.
Cabinet ministers Ed Balls and Peter Hain indicated that voters opposed to a Conservative government should “act intelligently” when it came to deciding how to cast their vote tomorrow.
Other senior figures however, including campaign coordinator Douglas Alexander, warned support for the Lib Dems could actually let the Tories back in after polling day.
And there was more embarrassment for Labour yesterday when one of the party’s candidates branded Gordon Brown as Britain’s “worst prime minister”.
Manish Sood, the candidate for North West Norfolk, was swiftly dismissed by the party as a “maverick” standing in a safe Tory seat where Labour stood no chance and who faced censure once the election was over.
However, his comments were an unwelcome distraction for the party as it began the final push for votes.
Brown, campaigning in a string of key marginals across the West Midlands and North Wales, made a clear pitch to woo Lib Dems, underlining his commitment to “fairness”.
“Fairness is in my DNA, it’s in my bloodstream, it is in what I think, it is in the soul of my being,” he said.
On the issue of tactical voting, he said that his advice to Labour supporters was to vote Labour. “I want every Labour vote because I think people will look at the votes as a whole and they will look at what Labour has achieved.”
However his aides were happy to let Balls – Brown’s closest lieutenant who was with him on the campaign trail – brief journalists that he understood why Labour supporters in Lib Dem-Tory marginals may vote tactically.
“I’m not going to start second guessing their judgments,” he said. “Of course I want the Labour candidate to win but I understand people’s concerns about letting the Conservatives in.”
Hain, the Welsh secretary, went further, urging voters to “act intelligently” and suggesting that a “progressive” Labour-Lib Dem alliance could combine to reform the political system in the new parliament.
“My ultimate aim is to get a parliament which drives through political reform, with Labour in alliance with the Liberal Democrats and others who want to reform the political system from top to bottom.
“I think there’s a natural progressive majority in the next parliament if voters vote to get it.”
But other senior ministers warned that a call to vote tactically could rebound against Labour to the advantage of the Conservatives.
Alexander said: “If you vote for the Liberal Democrats, you could wake up on Friday morning and see a Conservative-led government, including Liberal Democrats. We are campaigning for every vote.”
Justice secretary Jack Straw said that he believed in “supporting every Labour candidate standing in the election”.
“It’s they and we who believe in the Labour approach,” he said.
Environment secretary Hilary Benn added: “If a vote for the Liberal Democrats leads to David Cameron being prime minister, a lot of people will regret that.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, dismissed the calls by Balls and Hain for tactical voting as “pretty desperate” by the Labour Party.
“Their vote is collapsing in key areas and coming over to the Liberal Democrats. I think this could result in a big Lib Dem surge. We are campaigning right to the end. It looks as if Labour has given up,” he said.
For the Tories, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, said that the calls for tactical voting could actually deter voters who wanted to get rid of Brown from voting Labour.
“Now they have heard it from senior cabinet ministers that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will also help Gordon Brown stay in office,” he said.
Meanwhile, shadow business secretary Ken Clarke insisted the Conservatives could still gain an outright majority and avoid a hung parliament, although he admitted the chances were “slim”.
“I think there’s still a slim chance we can get an overall majority, which I would very much like to see.
“It is very difficult to read because the electoral geography is quite local and it is a complicated breakdown of voting which is taking place – but my hunch is we’re still in with a chance of getting a parliamentary majority.”
There was anger among the Lib Dems after a group of senior figures questioned the party’s commitment to national security in a letter to The Times.
Former chief of the defence staff, General Lord Guthrie, ex-MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, and former national counter-terrorism coordinator Peter Clarke, warned that its policies on nuclear weapons and Afghanistan put them outside the cross-party consensus and represented “a gamble”.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg dismissed their intervention, insisting that he cared “passionately” about national security.
“I am not going to take lectures from a bunch of retired establishment figures about the security of this country. Some of them actually made the biggest mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq war,” he said.