Matthew Norman: Doctor, doctor - this party looks a bit sickly

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In the general run of things, any caring soul contemplating Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley this week would advise him to check in to the nearest NHS sleep disorder clinic without delay. The trouble is that poor, befuddled Mr Lansley will be convinced that they have all been shut down for want of funding.

Mr Lansley is exhausted, so unnamed friends of his inform us, and apparently it was this fatigue that led him not only to produce one of the more luminescent cock-ups in opposition history, but also to break his tribe's most sacred convention by openly admitting his fallibility on live television. Faced with the seemingly simple task of scaremongering about health cutbacks, to recap very briefly, Mr Lansley mangled his facts so disastrously that within hours the Tories were issuing grovelling apologies to various hospitals. One of them, Altrincham General, would be in a better position to face losing its A&E and maternity units if it could only clear the qualifying hurdle of possessing such units in the first place.

In football terms, all of this brings to mind the bewhiskered, baggy-trousered Corinthian Casuals of a century ago who declined to take penalty kicks because they deemed it dashed unsporting to the opposing goalie to shoot from such close range. There are few political goals currently more open for the Tory sharp-shooter than the fiscal chaos afflicting parts of the NHS, and the gentlemanly Mr Lansley lolloped up to the spot, swivelled on his heels, and belted the ball 88 yards the other way down the pitch into his own net.

To me, and perhaps to Gordon Brown, there is something touching about discovering such rarefied amateurishness in so rigidly professional an age, although I doubt Mr Cameron would agree. He may be reflecting morosely on the contrast between the energy levels exhibited by his team and that of Mr Blair 11 years ago. In the summer of 1996, with an election expected the following spring, then, just as now, New Labour's finest were, as Alastair Campbell's diaries remind us, in a state of perpetual hyperactivity. They were churning out eye-catching policy initiatives by the hour, and never ceased launching savage attacks on Mr Major and his government. They even sent Glenda Jackson off to the Costa del Sol to schmooze sunburned holidaymakers, for the benefit of press photographers, as only the double Oscar-winning actress can. They never let up for a minute, and they never made a bad mistake.

Mr Lansley is exhausted, meanwhile, and as those motorway signs keep warning us, tiredness kills. For now it has probably killed the NHS as a potential conduit between the Tories and the speedy narrowing of a Labour opinion poll lead rendered a little vulnerable in recent days by the dreadful events on the streets of Liverpool and elsewhere that have spawned a host of "Anarchy In The UK" headlines.

It was Mr Cameron himself who first appropriated that Sex Pistols song title, and ordinarily the appalling murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in a Croxteth pub car park would offer him another clear chance to do the government serious damage. In this case, however, it also presents a giant trap of his own making, since eye witnesses report that the bicycling killer was wearing the garment that spawned the most memorable quote of his career. It's all very well Mr Cameron changing hug-a-hoodie into hang-a-hoodie in four easy steps, as if he were playing one of those word games, but such a dramatic volte face can only reinforce the defector Quentin Davies's charge that he has no core beliefs at all, and will say anything for a cheap poll boost.

Even before Rhys's death, Mr Cameron had jettisoned his masterplan to attack Labour from the left on social policy in the usual manner. At the first hint of electoral failure, William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard scrapped "compassionate conservatism" and lurched maniacally to the tax-law'*'order-immigration hard right. Those of us who imagined Mr Cameron to be a more thoughtful leader have been disappointed to watch him replicate that journey almost to the inch.

Of course one understands the pressures to cement his core supportership when a cynical, flawlessly adroit new Prime Minister is ruthlessly targeting the civilised end of the Tory vote. And of course one appreciates the terror of a man who knows that he, like Hague and Howard, would have half the career life span of an aphid if he suffered a bad election loss. But tacky, tabloid-ingratiating gibberish about denying young troublemakers benefits and driving licences, and scrapping human rights legislation – precisely the sort of retrograde foolishness that drives wavering Labour and Lib Dem voters back into the fold – looks like the refuge of a man seeking to limit the scale of defeat rather than to win.

Mr Cameron started out as the self-styled Tory Blair, but increasingly it seems that the realistic limit of his ambition is to become his party's Neil Kinnock ... the Moses figure who leads his bedraggled people through the wildnerness towards a land of milk and honey he will never taste himself. That role requires discipline, constancy, strong nerve under fire and a willingness for self-sacrifice of which he shows little sign.

Scaremongering is the easiest of options, of course, but never has it been anything but a self-destructive force in post-war electoral politics. Churchill tried it in 1945, warning that the arrival of Socialism in Britain would give rise to "some form of Gestapo", and was crushed. Kinnock tried it with his caution about the perils of being old and sick in Thatcher's Britain, and the old girl duly chalked up another landslide in 1987. Major, Hague and Howard tried it with Blair.

It never works because the British people, whom politicians are prone to confuse with the newspapers they read and the phone-ins they listen to, are not morons. They – or at least enough of them to swing general elections one way or the other – know there are grave problems with violence in parts of the country, and that the solutions to them are far too complex to lie within the ambit of a glib soundbite from a politician whose approach to teenage thuggery has diametrically reversed in the space of a few months.

They know that, for all the fictions propagated about the pernicious human rights influence exerted by Europe, and for all the right-wing championing of the brutal justice system that operates in America, it is not in mainland Europe but in the United States that children routinely shoot and stab other children and their teachers to death. And they know that financial problems beset parts of the NHS, and also that a man too exhausted to check his facts about threatened closures before using them to spread fear probably lacks the stamina to sort those problems out.