David Cameron has warned his top team to "get a grip" to halt the Conservatives' dip in the opinion polls which threatens to deprive the party of an overall majority at the general election.
The Independent's latest monthly "poll of polls" shows that Labour has cut the Tory lead to single figures in the past month and suggests that Britain is heading for a hung parliament.
Mr Cameron is reviewing the way his team makes decisions after a series of mistakes which has put his party on the defensive and raised Labour's hopes of avoiding what looked like a certain defeat. In recent weeks, the Tories have talked up and then played down the prospect of big spending cuts this year and Mr Cameron admitted he "messed up" over the party's policy on rewarding marriage in the tax system.
Although the Tories deny they are having a "wobble" or a "panic", one insider said yesterday: "David [Cameron]
is banging heads together and saying we must get a grip."
Tory sources admit that tensions between key Cameron advisers have contributed to a sense of drift but insist the narrowing poll gap has reminded the party leadership that it needs to sharpen up performance.
Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron's director of strategy, is believed to favour a broad-brush campaign built around the Tories' "year of change" slogan. But the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, who is in charge of the election effort, believes the Hilton "vision approach" is too vague and that the party needs to spell out a small number of concrete pledges so voters know how the "change" would be delivered.
Insiders say Mr Cameron has now sided with Mr Osborne against Mr Hilton in an intense internal debate. "We have not had a clear message," one Tory frontbencher admitted. "There has been no one in charge, no one to take a decision, and cock-ups have been made. The last few weeks have been a mess. The word has now come down [from Mr Cameron] that George [Osborne] is in charge on this."
The "poll of polls" puts the Tories on 39 per cent (down one point on last month), Labour on 30 per cent (up one) and the Liberal Democrats on 19 (no change). These figures would give the Tories 318 seats at an election, Labour 252, the Liberal Democrats 47 and other parties 33. Crucially, Mr Cameron would be eight seats short of a majority.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiles the weighted average of the polls conducted by ComRes, ICM, YouGov, Populus and Ipsos MORI, said: "Many of the headlines may have been bad for Labour, but in practice this has been a good month for the party."
He said that last month's attempted Labour coup against Gordon Brown did not do any damage to the party's standing, while the announcement that Britain has emerged from recession seemed to have added two or three points to Labour's ratings.
Professor Curtice said: "Labour's immediate task is to consolidate this gain and ensure it is not a temporary blip. The Conservatives' mixed messages on the financial deficit may well have helped Labour in that regard."
One senior Cameron aide insisted yesterday that there has been "no row" and no change of personnel but confirmed the Tory campaign was kept under constant review and that Mr Cameron wanted a "110 per cent focus".
Another senior Tory said that the party had never taken victory for granted and was always going to face scrutiny as the election approached. "We have had a wake-up call – much better to have it now than at the start of the election," he said.
Yesterday the Tories warned that there would be "panic" in the financial markets if Mr Brown managed to hold on to power. Kenneth Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, told Sky News: "I think most people decided quite a long time ago that they have had enough of Gordon Brown. I think there is a great general desire to get rid of him and the present government, which has plainly played out, and is quite incredible when it comes to tackling the debt and the deficit that they are leaving behind. There would be quite a panic on the markets, I think, if by some extraordinary turn of events Gordon Brown were returned to power."
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, told the BBC: "I sit next to David Cameron every morning as we look at the political situation. He does not wobble."
Labour strategists are surprised by the apparent drift in the Tory campaign. Labour's private polls suggest that, because many voters want a change of government, they are now looking more closely at the alternative and realising that they do not know what the Tories would do in power.
Who calls the shots? Campaign chain of command
1. David Cameron
The Tories' best asset, having dragged them back to the brink of power after 13 years in the electoral wilderness in his four years as leader. He has never taken victory for granted and now demands a final spurt to the finishing line after recent wobbles. Will be keen to remind voters how he has changed his party as Labour launches "same old Tories" attack.
2. George Osborne
A special adviser in the last Tory government, aide to William Hague when he was Tory leader. Now shadow Chancellor and election co-ordinator. Cameron's closest political ally. Keen to sharpen upthe offer to the voters to include specific key pledges to answer the "change to what?" question.
3. Steve Hilton
Former adman is director of strategy. Seen as third most powerful player in the Conservative Party after Cameron and Osborne. Cameron's intellectual guru. Favours a broad-brush election campaign based on projecting a vision of "change", modelled on President Barack Obama's "time for change" crusade, to exploit public disaffection with Gordon Brown.
4. Andy Coulson
The former editor of the News of the World, where he resigned after scandal over tapping telephones of Royals and celebrities. Head of communications and planning. Less keen than Hilton on "cuddly" policies such as "hug a huskie" or "hug a hoodie". Wants a hard edge to policy andpresentation, and has become a highly influential and trusted adviser to Cameron.
5. George Bridges
Respected former political aide to John Major from 1994-97, he became head of the research department and later campaign director at Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Took time out from Tories in 2007 when he got married but returned to the fold in December 2009 to work on the election. Insiders say he has formed a close alliance with Osborne and Coulson. Seen as on right of the party. Sits on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies.