Theresa May
May has the mettle to fight backReuters

David Cameron may have taken swift action to cage two of his biggest beasts, ordering home secretary Theresa May and education secretary Michael Gove to end their feuding over who is toughest on Muslim extremists, but it may already be too late.

These two ministers are amongst the fiercest creatures in the jungle. Theresa May's trademark may be her kitten heels but, as Gove is only the latest to discover, cross her and she fights back like a cornered mountain lion. She wants to be Tory leader and the latest poll put her storming ahead of the other favourite, Boris Johnson.

The charming Gove may have nothing obviously serpentine about him, but he has built a formidable reputation for launching venomous assaults on colleagues he has fallen out with. He wants George Osborne to be the next leader although, as one Tory MP said: "What makes you think Michael doesn't have ambitions himself?" He certainly wants to stop May in her tracks.

The idea that these two beasts will now kiss and make up, rather than continuing to circle each other before going in for the kill, is highly optimistic. And after the Blair-Brown warfare, it is no longer acceptable to blame special advisers for "going off piste" with issues like this, a minister's job is to keep their dogs on their leads and if they fail they should take the rap themselves.

Clearly, personal animosity and burning ambition have seeped into this latest outbreak, but there is also a real policy issue over Muslim extremists which voters care about and want to feel reassured ministers have a grip on.

Yet they are being treated to the sight of two ministers attempting to paint the other as soft, or foot-dragging over the best way to tackle such alleged extremism in schools, specifically in Birmingham.

For many years before 9/11 the UK had a reputation in other countries for being too lax about allowing extremists to set up shop here. It wasn't known as "Londonistan" for nothing.

Michael Gove
Gove sparked row with newspaper briefingReuters

Obviously that all changed, but the seeds of the current row were sown there and then. There has been widespread confusion from successive governments about how to react to those preaching extreme versions of Islam.

Now it has erupted into public with the Gove-May row, which started when the education secretary briefed the Times newspaper, his old employers, and criticised the chief home office spook, Charles Farr, for his approach to the problem and the department's failure to "drain the swamp" of extremism.

Farr is the partner of Theresa May's special adviser, Fiona Cunningham, who has now found herself under the full-on media spotlight amid questions over whether she was responsible for publishing her boss' stinging letter to Gove demanding to know why he hadn't acted over the problem for four years.

None of this is particularly edifying and suggestions Gove may be reshuffled for going too far this time, or that Cunningham may yet be sacked for the alleged offence sparked by her personal life just add fuel to the flames.

But while Cameron may succeed in ending public spats over the policy, he is powerless to stop leadership positioning. Everything the potential successors do is now being viewed through that telescope, with May's blistering attack on the police at the force's recent conference only the latest example of such analysis.

The most depressing thing about this for Cameron is the fact that it suggests, quite rightly, that there is a widespread feeling on the Tory benches that he will again fail to win an outright majority next year at which point the knives will come out.

All the recent polling suggests that remains the most likely outcome so it is no surprise that there is now renewed speculation that Cameron is ready to do another coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. Which presumes his party will let him.

In any case there are also reports that senior Labour figures, led by Lord Adonis who led 2010's failed negotiations with Clegg, are already talking to Lib Dem figures about a possible post-election deal.

Finally, thanks to Cameron's creation of a 'zombie parliament' with little to occupy it, MPs and the media will fill the vacuum with exactly the sort of speculation Gove and May have just ignited.

Keeping a lid on that is way beyond even a prime minister's powers.