He has travelled 10,154 miles since the campaign began, crossing the country by private aeroplane, helicopter, train and battle bus. The journey has not been smooth.

Yet at stake for David Cameron was the chance to prove to traditionalist critics in his party that a strategy of moving the Conservatives to the political centre was the right approach to securing its best chance of power for a generation.

Mr Cameron’s final 36-hour tour of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, drumming up votes from nightshift workers along the way, showed how tight the race has been.

“I’m fighting for every vote right down to the wire,” Mr Cameron said. “I never thought [the campaign] would be easy.”

Alastair Campbell, the Blairite former spinner, accused his Conservative enemies of having squandered their advantages in financial support, media backing – most of Fleet Street endorsed Mr Cameron – and the public appetite for change.

“If the Tories were any good at all . . . at campaigns, they would have rested easy in their beds [on Tuesday night] rather than careering around the country annoying bakers and fishmongers.”

The Tory leadership retorted that such attacks ignored the scale of the electoral mountain they had to climb – the party needed to gain 117 seats for an overall majority – as well as the difficulty of winning over a sceptical electorate.

Critics said Mr Cameron made a hard task more difficult through two key campaign errors. The first, they alleged, was the lack of a clear message to sell the party on the doorstep.

Mr Cameron based the 118-page manifesto launch at Battersea power station on his “Big Society” message – a concept that George Osborne, the shadow chancellor and election co-ordinator, admitted was “quite a philosophical argument in a general election”.

It took until the closing stages of the campaign for the Tories to condense the Big Society into 16 clear pledges under their “contract with voters”.

The second criticism was the decision to agree to the televised prime ministerial debates, allowing Nick Clegg equal air time in what has historically been a two-horse race. The subsequent Liberal Democrat surge appeared to confound the Tory leadership. Mr Cameron tried to woo third-party supporters – pitching to people with “progressive ideals” – while simultaneously sounding dire warnings about the risks of a hung parliament.

Mr Osborne admitted to the Financial Times that the Clegg phenomenon was “totally unexpected”. But he said Mr Cameron was keen to have the televised debates and there was no way the Lib Dem leader could have been excluded. “I genuinely don’t regret them and neither does David Cameron. They have energised British politics.”

Mr Clegg’s victory in the first debate and the Lib Dems’ 10-point poll surge sent tremors through Central Office.

“It was unprecedented,” Mr Osborne conceded. But he said the party showed it was quick on its feet, rapidly producing a new party election broadcast to show Mr Cameron making a positive pitch to the electorate.

He was also proud of the fact that the Tory campaign did not start to fall apart at that point and stories about splits in Central Office did not appear in the press.

“There were different points of view, of course,” the Tory campaign chief said. “But there were no wobbles.”

Mr Osborne stressed the importance of the Tories’ domination of the early skirmishes of the formal campaign at the start of April, notably the successful opposition, backed by business leaders, to Labour’s planned national insurance rise.

“This is the first time in 18 years we have won the debate on the economy,” a Tory insider said.

“If it hadn’t been for our good start, things might have been very different in Central Office after Nick Clegg’s first television debate.”

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