August has proved the cruellest month for David Cameron. After the grammar schools debacle, a calamitous decision to swap flood-soaked Witney for Rwanda and the dual by-election disaster, he has now notched up his worst poll ratings since becoming Tory leader.
To cap it all, the über-right-winger John Redwood then took to the stage – while the Tory leader was absent on a family holiday – to unveil a tranche of decidedly un-Cameroonian policies.
Cameron’s dilemma is how to rein his rebellious party back to the centre ground while avoiding a full-on rebellion on his right flank. Not an easy task from a position of weakness.
According to a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times of 12 August, the Tories are now lagging ten points behind Labour. Worse still for Cameron, the Brown bounce has led to a slide in the number who think he is doing a good job, down from 54 per cent in April to just 29 per cent now. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brown glories in a score of 65 per cent.
Yet a closer look at the figures shows that Cameron is not the only leader for whom the YouGov poll could spell disaster.
Sir Menzies Campbell is thought to be doing an even worse job than Cameron, with only 24 per cent giving him a vote of confidence, down 3 per cent in just four months. The Liberal Democrats are now languishing on 14 per cent – lower than at any time (bar one blip discussed later) since the 2005 general election.
Sir Ming’s perilous position has largely failed to make the headlines, partly because the collapse in his party’s standing has come in steady dribs and drabs – a percentage point here, a percentage point there. But the decline is no less significant for that.
It is often joked that Sir Ming is less popular sober than Charles Kennedy was drunk – and it’s true that the heady 23 per cent scored by the Lib Dems at the last general election seems a long way off.
The one rogue result when the party’s standing was lower than now came around the time Kennedy’s drink problem was exposed, leading to his swift despatch. Even then, support stood at 13 per cent – just 1 per cent less than now.
The new 2 per cent slither to 14 per cent brought Lib Dem groans, not because they thought it was bad (they did), but because it was not quite dreadful enough. The party that sees itself as “nice” knows an assassination is urgently required, but no one quite has the gumption to wield the knife against mild-mannered Ming.
Instead, up and down the ranks, plotters are seeking a point at which the situation becomes so obviously bleak that they have no choice but to rid themselves of their distinctly unturbulent priest.
Many had hoped last month’s Ealing Southall by-election would provide the magic bullet. With Cameron’s Tories looking in fine fettle, several members of Ming’s team secretly admitted they were praying for third place.
By-elections are the holy grail for Liberal Democrat MPs. Since the 1980s, many of them have entered parliament in between general elections with blitzkrieg assaults on former government strongholds.
So when it emerged that the Conservative candidate, Tony Lit, had donated money to Labour, it was not just a disaster for Cameron. One prominent Lib Dem MP, returning from campaigning in Ealing, arrived at an eve-of-poll summer party thrown by a leading party member exclaiming: “F*** – it looks like we might win this thing now.” He was consoled by several frontbenchers, at least two prospective MPs, several backbenchers and various Lib Dem peers.
The result was worse than the plotters feared. Ming couldn’t even confound his critics by winning the seat; instead, he clung to his usual mediocrity by hanging on in second place. For timid Liberal Democrats this was the worst possible outcome. Without hitting rock bottom, they didn’t quite have the appetite to engage in the necessary bloodletting. But the drum roll of grim opinion poll results means that a return to Plan A – whereby the leader would be challenged next spring – is no longer an option, either.
Blind to the unhappiness around him, Sir Ming continues to insist he will fight the next general election and beyond. He recently told me that no one within the party had said to his face they were unhappy with his leadership, and until that happened he would assume that reports of plots were fictional.
Liberal Democrats are a notoriously cowardly lot, and I took him at his word that he had yet to be visited by the men in yellow coats. But he should have taken me at mine.
Just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean the knives aren’t well and truly out for Ming Campbell. Now they just have to find that magic bullet.
Rosa Prince is political correspondent for the Daily Mirror
Martin Bright is away. Inside Track returns at the end of the month