The Tories think they’re winning – but it’s the coalition that is beating Labour

With a Conservative majority almost certainly out of reach, Cameron must redefine as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery.
"Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record." Photograph: Getty Images.

The terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames, is full of basking Tories these days. As parliament goes into its summer recess, the mood in the Conservative Party has, like the weather, turned sunny with a fierce edge.

David Cameron’s troops feel they are winning battles. On a range of potent issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – the Conservatives comfortably control the debate. They boast that they will cut here and clamp down there, while defying Labour to prove its willingness to do the same. Doubting that those are even the right remedies has become a sideline lament. Labour’s lead in opinion polls looks flimsy.

A measure of the Tories’ confidence is the venom in their attacks on Labour’s record of running the National Health Service. Conservative MPs have used the publication of a review of hospital mortality rates to hurl charges of lethal neglect at Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who ran the department under Gordon Brown.

Downing Street knows that the public is suspicious of Tory motives towards the NHS. In campaign terms, the best that No 10 can hope for is making it that little bit harder for Labour to occupy the moral high ground. So the attacks on Burnham are a tactic to trash the opposition’s credentials as champions of a cherished national institution. Cameron was once reluctant to be drawn into partisan warfare over the NHS. That squeamishness has gone. The plan now is simpler and applicable in every area, regardless of policy. As one Tory close to No 10 puts it: “We beat Labour to a pulp.”

This bloodlust reflects the influence of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign strategist who was hired for his mastery of bare-knuckle politics. It is working. Conservative MPs are given regular pep talks by Crosby, in which they are shown encouraging polling numbers and drilled in attack lines. They can see that Labour is under pressure and are happier and more loyal to their leader as a result. It is unclear whether this level of aggression can be sustained over two years without alienating the public. Some Tory moderates worry that Cameron needs to look like a reasonable man governing for the whole nation, not the alpha dog of a snarling pack. Crosby has made the Tories good at hammering but not everything in politics is a nail.

At least bashing Labour is something that every Conservative can agree on. Developing new policies risks reviving the culture war between the party’s “modernisers” and “traditionalists”. Besides, nothing can be enacted this side of a general election without seeking permission from the Lib Dems and granting concessions if they object. Few things animate the rebellious urges of Tories like a reminder of their subordination to Nick Clegg.

Loathing of coalition is deepening on the Conservative benches as more MPs of a certain age feel their chances of ministerial office slipping away for ever. Yet inside government, the power-sharing arrangement feels more stable than it has done in a long time. Insiders from both parties describe the completion of negotiations for last month’s Spending Review as a revelation. Lib Dems and Tories managed to coalesce around a shared set of tricky economic proposals, while fighting partisan policy battles – over deregulation of nursery places, over participation in European Union criminal justice co-operation, over internet surveillance. That choreography, Lib Dem ministers say, should kill off any doubts that the coalition will go the distance. Meanwhile, Cameron and George Osborne are determined to keep open the option of renewing the arrangement for a second term. Senior figures in the government say that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stared at the electoral arithmetic and realised that, even in best-case scenarios, their reliance on the Lib Dems may endure beyond 2015. To win a majority, Cameron needs to hold on to every voter he had in 2010 – a rare feat for an incumbent – and then win over a bunch of Lib Dem and Labour swing voters and also see off a challenge from Ukip. It is not impossible but it would need the opposition to panic and crumble.

Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record. That will revive the two-against-one dynamic that made it so hard for Labour to get its economic arguments across after the last election – a handicap from which Ed Miliband has yet to recover fully. If the next parliament is hung and Labour is not the biggest party, it will feel like an endorsement of the status quo and so a victory for the combined coalition forces. At that point, backbench Tory hatred of Clegg will become a big problem for Cameron. The pressure to go it alone would be immense. A former Tory cabinet minister tells me: “We are in danger of getting to where we are now in terms of seats, having persuaded people that it’s working, and then not being able to recreate the government that delivered it.”

The last election was kinder to Cameron than it was to his party. He got to be Prime Minister; they had to share power with the Lib Dems – an unforgivable affront. Given Tory misgivings about Cameron, he has done well in recent weeks to instil confidence in his MPs that Labour can be beaten. For his next trick, he needs to persuade them that they can win. That will be tricky, as it will surely require redefining as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.