David Cameron

Business leaders have become frustrated at the tactics and tone of the Conservative election campaign, amid concern in British boardrooms that Ed Miliband is mounting a stiffer challenge for Number 10 than expected.

Twenty FTSE 100 and other business leaders have told the Financial Times they are anxious that — despite presiding over an economic recovery — David Cameron has not opened a lead over Labour.

In particular, they criticise the strident personal attacks on the opposition and the flurry of big-spending promises that jar with the party’s prudent fiscal record. “The negative campaign has been disastrous,” said one company chairman.

“The strength of the performance of the coalition in terms of delivering real growth and real jobs has become almost background noise,” said another, speaking on condition of anonymity. One FTSE 100 chief said: “Why not play the positive economic note? There is a good story to tell.”

Senior Conservatives reject the criticism, arguing that the campaign, with its focus on the prospect of the Scottish National party in alliance with Mr Miliband in a hung parliament, is playing well on the doorstep.

The election will not be decided in Kensington and Chelsea, say allies of Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ strategist, but in marginal constituencies such as Solihull in the West Midlands or St Austell in the southwest of England, where Mr Cameron campaigned on Thursday.

Conservative tacticians also insist Mr Cameron has offset the harsh critiques of his opponents with a positive message, offering policies on better childcare, more apprenticeships and additional cash for the health service.

Polls put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck on about 34 points and most Tory candidates say they are holding their nerve, with some predicting a last-minute “flight to safety” with the Conservatives.

Mick Davis, former chief executive of Xstrata who now runs a private equity group, said Mr Cameron was “right to highlight the real risk an SNP-Labour government poses to investment, to jobs and to the economy. The best outcome for business is a strong, majority Conservative government that sticks to its economic programme.”

Ian Taylor, chief executive of oil trader Vitol, also backed the campaign. “The success of UK’s economic recovery demonstrates David Cameron has the right plan for the future. British jobs and quality public services depend upon strong economy and stable pro-business environment,” he said.

Many business leaders are, however, less sanguine about the outcome, fearing that an inconclusive result would lead to a Labour-led government, which would raise taxes and interfere in markets, in particular the energy sector.

The corporate chiefs who spoke to the FT asked for anonymity because they said they did not want to undermine the Tory campaign in public.

One FTSE 100 leader suggested that main elements of the Conservative party manifesto — including the pledge for a real-terms freeze on rail fares — contradicted its promises of responsible fiscal management. “If you intervene in rail prices, you legitimise Ed [Miliband] on intervening in energy prices,” he said.

Several FTSE 100 chiefs suggested the Tories had underestimated Mr Miliband’s qualities and potential to appeal to the electorate when devising their electoral strategy. The Labour leader is now rated by bookmakers as favourite to be the next prime minister. “Every time Miliband is visible, he appears credible,” said one business leader.

Some warned of a “wasted week” of negative campaigning against Mr Miliband, highlighting defence secretary Michael Fallon’s description of the Labour leader last month as a “back stabber” who would abandon Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Others argued that the Tory campaign had been too “narrow” and that what one business leader referred to as the “fear tactics” of the Crosby strategy risked backfiring. “The Scottish scaremongering plays into the SNP’s hands,” said one business leader.

Mr Crosby’s allies suggested his boardroom critics were not the best judges of how to win vital votes in marginal seats — a view supported by an FT focus group in Thurrock, where undecided voters spoke of their concerns about a Labour-SNP deal.

Additional reporting by Miles Johnson

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