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Cameron’s cavalier style has the Tory infantry feeling like lions led by a donkey

Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command.

It is not most people’s idea of a race. The competitors are either standing still or shuffling backwards away from the finish line. Such is the state of play in David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s pursuit of a parliamentary majority at the next election.

The Labour leader, after a phase of incremental advance, is stationary again. Miliband’s MPs are getting used to his ponderous, halting rhythm but it doesn’t make them comfortable. None believes Labour’s lead in the opinion polls is what it could be against a divided Conservative Party presiding over economic failure.

The source of Labour’s greatest comfort has nothing to do with policy. It is the death of Conservative plans to redraw constituency boundaries, which means the opposition has a modest headstart in the accumulation of seats.

To overcome that obstacle, the Tories need a surge of public support well beyond their core vote – unusual but not impossible for an incumbent party.

For the electoral battle to come, Labour MPs are mathematically confident and intellectually anxious. They have an advantage but suspect it is unearned. For Conservatives it is the other way around. They know the numbers are against them but are sure that popular opinion on big questions – welfare, crime, immigration, Europe – sits firmly to the right of Miliband. What demoralises many Tory MPs is the sense that this advantage is being squandered by No 10.

That feeling is not restricted to Eurosceptic mutineers and Ukip fanciers. Even MPs who want to be loyal find themselves blaming Cameron for mishandling the restive element, either by failing to impose discipline or by confecting needless provocations. While Europe has captured the headlines as a source of Tory neuralgia, it is Cameron’s plan to legislate in favour of gay marriage that has fired the fury in local Conservative associations. It is the kind of issue that can turn an MP’s stroll through the constituency into a finger-wagging ordeal.

“In terms of the mailbag, complaints about gay marriage outnumber Europe by a factor of 80 to one,” says a Tory backbencher. Others confirm the ratio. Parliament will have a free vote on the matter, so the prospect of 120 Tories rejecting the bill does not count technically as a rebellion; but it is still a rebuke to Cameron’s agenda to “modernise” his party.

While some believe the leader’s championing of gay rights risks looking like a brandmanagement ploy, his friends insist that he is motivated only by dedication to the cause. Either way, Cameron has accidentally organised a parade of intemperate reaction that can only remind voters why the Tories needed modernising in the first place. Of the small numbers who choose a government for its commitment to gay equality, none will switch allegiance because of this specific gambit.

What riles Tory MPs above all is the all too-familiar picture of their leader playing the part of aristocrat officer, barking unrealistic orders at his battle-scarred troops without a care for conditions in the trenches. “It all comes across as a bit Melchett,” says one disappointed Cameroon MP, referring to Stephen Fry’s portrayal of a pompous, dimwit First World War general in the Blackadder series. The Tory infantry see themselves as lions led by a donkey.

Compounding questions about the Prime Minister’s judgement are doubts about the rigour of the Downing Street machine. The “grid” system developed by Tony Blair’s team to map out announcements and spot hazards on the horizon is said to have broken down. One former No 10 staffer reports that Cameron’s planning operation looks ahead no further than two months at a time, which, in terms of strategic perspective and problemsolving, is like crossing the road while contemplating your shoelaces.

Labour’s top brass are far from complacent but they have become noticeably less fearful. Those who once privately credited Cameron and George Osborne as shrewd operators are concluding that the Tory leadership might be a pair of amateurs after all. One senior shadow cabinet minister likes to joke that the Tories have reached levels of division and disarray in two years that Labour achieved only after a decade in office: “It took us years to be this bad at government.”

By contrast, inside Cameron’s team there are reserves of confidence based on two calculations. First, there is the continuing belief that even a frail economic recovery would justify a campaign claiming credit for progress and warning that Labour would turn the clock back. Second, Downing Street has undimmed faith that Miliband, irrespective of improvements in his media and parliamentary performances, will never match the public profile of a credible national leader.

Cameron’s relaxedness about the Labour threat only stokes the ire of Tory MPs, who think arrogance and complacency are his chief failings. A tiny but implacable platoon dreams of removing the leader and replacing him with someone of more muscular Conservative credentials, although there is no agreement on who that might be. That is a rather crucial omission for would-be plotters and it confirms the Downing Street view that the seditious whispers are symptoms of midterm panic among MPs who don’t know how to win an election and imagine that any fresh face at the top would somehow reset the dial in the Tories’ favour. (It wouldn’t.) “All those people wishing something magical would happen are deluding themselves,” says a senior party strategist.

Meanwhile, Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command. The hope is that Miliband’s stature will be enhanced if the Prime Minister’s authority declines. Neither is growing much in the public’s estimation, but that is the peculiar, uninspiring nature of their race. Victory belongs to the one who shrinks the least.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez