Tory lead shrinks: Jitters... or something more?

After a series of Tory gaffes, the opinion polls are narrowing. But are voters simply suffering the equivalent of pre-wedding nerves or is there a deeper reason for Labour's improved showing? Jane Merrick and Brian Brady investigate

Sitting on a Seventies-era sofa in the VIP lounge at Nairobi Airport in July 2007, en route to Rwanda, with flood waters rising in his constituency and a nascent rebellion by backbenchers over grammar schools brewing back home, David Cameron appeared unbothered by the troubles. The Tory leader declared he would "ride the dip" caused by Gordon Brown's bounce in the polls and party discontent – and come out the other side.

Mr Cameron's prediction was right. But two and a half years on, Conservative MPs are becoming unsettled again. The Tories remain around 10 points clear of Labour, and an election victory is still on the cards. But Labour has narrowed the gap to as little as seven points in one survey; there is confusion over their fiscal policy, and the Prime Minister appears to be enjoying a late resurgence thanks to Britain emerging – just – out of recession. The "dip" is not as deep as the summer of 2007, but Mr Cameron's once-smooth path to Downing Street suddenly looks a little more bumpy.

Is it a case of the electorate having pre-wedding nerves, with the first Tory victory for 18 years on the horizon causing jitters? Or is the problem deeper, suggesting that the party was so grateful, finally, to have a plausible, electable leader that it forgot everything else: coherent ideology and policy?

For the first time in months, there were rumblings at the backbench 1922 Committee last week, with even the venerable Nicholas Soames grumbling about the party's "lack of assertiveness".

In his more measured moments, Mr Cameron might console himself with recollections of past wobbles by parties that had once appeared to be gliding effortlessly towards power. In late 1996, Labour's serene progress was jolted by an NOP poll that cut their lead from 23 points to a mere 14 (14!), and talk of an unlikely Tory revival.

A more celebrated quiver was felt by the Tories themselves during the 1987 campaign, on "Wobbly Thursday", when poor polling prompted Margaret Thatcher's ally David Young to grip Norman Tebbit by the shoulders and wail: "Norman, listen to me, we are about to lose this fucking election."

On both occasions, normal service was resumed swiftly and, despite the momentary failure of nerve, the favourites went on to win by a mile.

The point, as Mr Cameron's strategists will be reassuring him, is that parties which enjoy such large poll leads, so close to elections, rarely lose. They show glimpses of nerves, they wobble, but they usually come through.

"Unpopular governments almost always close the gap as an election approaches – even the Conservatives under John Major did so in 1996-97," says Professor David Denver, of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University. "The cycle of government popularity has a characteristic U shape. Sometimes governments catch up enough to win – Mrs Thatcher – sometimes they don't – John Major."

Yet it will not be enough to sit back and wait for the polls to come back to Mr Cameron, particularly as he bears some responsibility for the drift.

The retreat from the healthy majority projected from the polls in early January to a position as the largest party in a hung parliament has followed an uncommonly unprofessional series of misjudgements in a hitherto glittering career as prime minister elect.

From the row over the recognition of marriage in the tax system to the "clarification" over the extent of the cuts a Tory government would impose on the public services, Mr Cameron's struggle has provoked unwelcome echoes of the grammar-schools farrago of 2007, when traditionalists in his party forced him into a confused position.

The result is that the Opposition is no longer operating in a blissful vacuum; the embarrassment over the updated economic blueprint brutally demonstrates that, so close to the moment when it could assume leadership of the country, the party will not be afforded the luxury of a lack of rigour.

"Voters are beginning to worry much more about actual policy detail," says Professor Charles Pattie, of Sheffield University. "Because they have to make a choice soon and may end up with a change of government and hence of policy direction: they want to know what they'll be getting into."

The sudden crisis of confidence in Mr Cameron's leadership, which had for so long been regarded as the party's greatest asset, has also cast an unwelcome spotlight on his team of advisers, allies and shadow ministers. One of his closest friends, the party's chief executive, Andrew Feldman, is in the news over a lucrative government contract in Macedonia; the party treasurer, Michael Spencer, faces questions after selling a stake in his own broking firm before warning shareholders that profits would plunge; and Mr Cameron's director of communications, Andy Coulson, remains dogged by allegations relating to the "phone-hacking" scandal that took place during his time as editor of the News of the World. There is no suggestion that any of these men have done anything wrong, but the mere fact that they are seen as legitimate targets for media coverage demonstrates that the Cameron court is suddenly fair game.

The Tories home affairs spokesman, Chris Grayling, has been officially accused of portraying crime figures in a way that was "likely to mislead the public", while George Osborne is under fire from inside the party over the confused economic policy.

Some insiders believe Mr Osborne has run into difficulty because of his twin roles as the Conservatives' general election campaign co-ordinator and Shadow Chancellor. Wearing one hat, he is overseeing a strategy that needs to appeal to the centre ground, winning over voters who backed Labour in the last three elections – which needs a softly-softly approach to public services; wearing the other, he is trying to be the tough Chancellor-in-waiting who is getting a grip on the nation's finances.

But it was Mr Cameron who, on 25 January, accused Labour of "moral cowardice" for failing to get tough with the budget deficit, before, four days later, in a speech in Davos, backtracking by insisting that spending cuts would not be "particularly extensive" in the first year.

Mr Cameron had apparently tested the water among economists and ministers in Davos, but focus groups have also suggested that voters have been put off by the "austerity" message.

Ken Clarke, the Tories' business spokesman, has increasingly warned against drastic spending cuts, and only days ago said a Tory government should carry on spending on Britain's infrastructure. In an interview with the South Devon Herald Express he said: "Historically, the easiest thing to cut has always been capital programmes ... But we are all too well aware it is dangerous to cancel real investment, including investment in infrastructure, at times like this."

Dr Tim Bale, who recently published a book on the Tories post Thatcher, says the difficulties largely stem from Mr Cameron's desperation to strike an electoral balance between "tough and tender".

He adds: "I don't think he has any choice but to carry on doing this – not enough people are going to go back to the Tories if they're still scared it'll mean slash and burn."

But even before Mr Cameron's U-turn, the polls showed a narrowing of the gap between Labour and the Tories. After the "hiccup" of last month's botched coup by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, cabinet ministers are newly determined. While many believe it is still a far-fetched possibility that Labour could win a majority, they plan to go down fighting.

Meanwhile, among Tory MPs, there is a feeling that their campaign for No 10 is showing cracks because so much is focused on their leader, and very little on policies or ideology.

Tory 'promises'

Tackling the Deficit David Cameron drops pledge of dramatic spending cuts in 2010, promising only to "make a start" on reducing the budget deficit.

Crime Figures Chris Grayling, home affairs spokesman, officially accused of portraying crime figures in a way that was "likely to mislead the public", over his claims that violent crime had risen.

Lord Stern The Tories announced Lord Stern had been appointed as an economic adviser, but the peer immediately denied the claim.

Lisbon Treaty The "cast iron" guarantee of a European referendum is abandoned.

Marriage The married tax allowance is watered down.

Inheritance Tax Introduction of raised threshold to be delayed.

Law & Order Pledge for 5,000 more prison places watered down: there will now be enough only to ensure an end to early release.

NHS Pledge of more NHS single rooms watered down.

Empty properties Review of the Government's £1bn tax on empty properties axed.

Loans £50bn loan guarantee scheme abolished.

Sure start A promise to keep all the Government's flagship Sure Start schemes dropped: they will stay only in poor areas.

Grammar Schools Mr Cameron sparked a furious internal row by pledging "no reintroduction" of selective schools under a Conservative government; he subsequently agreed that areas with existing grammar schools could expand the number of places.

Dave's friends in the spotlight

George Osborne

Shadow Chancellor

Held responsible for confusion over economic policy.

Andy Coulson

Director of Communications

Saga over News of the World phone-hacking allegations continues.

Chris Grayling

Shadow Home Secretary

Officially accused of portraying crime figures in a way that was "likely to mislead the public".

Andrew Feldman

Chief executive

Has won a contract from Macedonian government to build five-star hotel.

Michael Spencer

Party treasurer

Sold a stake in his brokering firm before warning shareholders profits would plunge.

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