• Tory leader says ministers unable to govern properly
• 'I messed up' admission over marriage proposal
David Cameron today seized on the plotting in the Labour party to intensify his demands for an early general election. Amid Tory gloating, as cabinet ministers failed to disguise their unease about the prime minister, the Tory leader said Labour's difficulties arose from Brown's lack of a mandate.
"We've got to have an election and a change of government," Cameron told Radio 4's Today programme. "Gordon Brown has only been prime minister for a couple of years and is in deep trouble."
Piling the pressure on Brown, Cameron said that the turmoil in the Labour party meant that ministers were failing to govern properly.
He said: "You just have to ask yourself, 'How much time do you think senior ministers spent yesterday thinking about the budget deficit, about the education of our children, about the war in Afghanistan, and how much were they thinking about their own careers?' for you to realise that, as we've put it pretty clearly, we cannot go on like this."
The Tories were enjoying the challenge to Brown because of the echoes of their own decline under John Major who famously issued a "put up or shut up" challenge to the Tory right in 1995. Major won by a narrow margin but never recovered his authority.
Supporters of Brown are particularly irritated by the Tory gloating – and annoyed with the timing of the challenge by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt – because Cameron slipped up this week. The Tory leader admitted today that he had "messed up" when he gave the impression on Monday that he might not be able to deliver his pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system in the lifetime of the next parliament.
"The truth is, I give dozens of interviews every week and on Monday I messed up and there is no other way of putting it," he told the Today programme. "I was thinking about all sorts of different things, and I misdescribed our policy. I immediately corrected that. But in my view there's only one thing worse than messing up, and that is messing up and not admitting to it."
Cameron, who is normally a sure-footed media performer, caused surprise in the shadow cabinet with his slip-up. Hours after Labour launched a dossier claiming that it would cost billions to deliver the marriage proposal, Cameron indicated that he might not be able to deliver it.
"It is something we want to do, something we believe we can do, it's something, within a parliament, I'll definitely hope to do," the Tory leader told the BBC on Monday afternoon. "I am not today able to make that promise because we face this vast budget deficit – it is a clear and present danger to our economy."
Within hours Cameron issued a clarification and insisted that he would recognise marriage in the tax system.
But Brown put in one of his most effective performances at prime minister's questions on Wednesday when he mocked Cameron, saying: "He cannot say 'I do' or 'I don't' when it comes to the married couples allowance."
Downing Street regards the slip by Cameron as significant because aides believe it came as a direct result of pressure from Labour when the chancellor, Alistair Darling, released his dossier on Monday highlighting a gap of £34bn in Tory tax and spending plans.
Brown believes it highlighted a contradiction at the heart of the Tory campaign: Cameron wants to reach out to middle Britain Daily Mail voters by making an expensive tax commitment inconsistent with his plan to stabilise public finances.
Cameron made clear today that he would recognise marriage "properly" in the tax system. But he added: "We have to be very careful about the commitment and pledges we make but that is a pledge we feel we are able to make."
In his Today interview Cameron was unable to dismiss a claim in the Daily Mirror, which is running a relentless campaign against him, that a Tory poster launched on Monday had been touched up.
The Mirror ran the poster next to a normal picture of Cameron. This appeared to show that his face had been airbrushed in the poster. Asked whether the picture had been touched up, Cameron laughed. "I certainly hope not," he said. "I made the decision that I wanted a strong positive start to the campaign. Of course I'm going get ribbing from my friends and not least my family about having my picture up there."
Challenged about the possible airbrushing, he said: "Look, I don't produce the picture or the poster."
The Tory leader's interview assured frontbenchers who were surprised by his mistake on marriage and tax. They were still in high spirits as they watched the Labour plotting. "What a bunch of dipsticks," one Tory frontbencher said of the Labour rebels.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016