David Cameron
Cameron faces an outbreak of leadership squabbling Reuters

If there is one thing more damaging for David Cameron's Tories than the ritual of "banging on" about Europe then it is obsessing over who will replace their leader after the next election.

But it is now clear that the party has decided the new game in town is indeed to start going on about the leadership, with George Osborne and Boris Johnson locked in nasty, public briefing campaigns against each other.

It reached new heights with claims that education secretary and Osborne supporter, Michael Gove, had been given the green light by his friend Cameron to savage London mayor Johnson whose repeated non-denials of his leadership ambitions have been a running story for the Tories.

One minister told the Spectator magazine: "'Michael is licensed to sink his teeth into Boris's ankles in a way that neither the boss nor George can." Which says it all really.

Then there was the sniping over reports that Osborne had been attempting to force Boris into declaring himself as an MP at the general election, so linking himself irrevocably to the party's campaign and denying him the ability to rise above it and, in the event of disaster, swing to the party's rescue.

There have also been well-placed suggestions Johnson has sanctioned a whispering campaign against Gove, along the lines that the education secretary had "lost his mojo", amongst other things.

Michael Gove
Gove is accused of briefing against Boris Johnson Toby Melville/Reuters

And so it bangs on, with no sign it is about to end unless and until Cameron decides it is all too damaging and tells them all to cool it. Which would then run the risk of them ignoring him anyway.

The sight of these carefully-placed media stories obviously has some deeply damaging consequences.

Not only do they suggest the Tories have already written off outright victory at the next election and, as a result, decided Cameron will be a dead duck because of his second electoral failure.

But it also encourages other would-be contenders to feel they had better start getting their dogs in the fight in case they get forgotten. The result has seen some surprising names, including that of the popular and effective minister Michael Fallon, bandied about.

It has long been the case that senior Tories do not believe the party can win outright in 2015, partly because of the Liberal Democrats refusal to back changes to constituency boundaries which currently favour Labour, and partly because of the unpredictable influence of Ukip.

But the very last thing Cameron needs with the poll just over a year away, and the campaign effectively already under way, is for the party to turn inward and start looking at how to handle a second failure. That turns voters off in their droves.

Labour learned that lesson in the 1980s, albeit for slightly different reasons, and it took them the best part of a decade to recover. And it is notable that, despite remaining doubts over whether Ed Miliband appears prime ministerial enough, there are no significant rumblings over his position.

One Tory MP told IBTimesUK: "Cameron should step into this one and put an end to it now so we can concentrate on the things that really matter for the election, like the economy, where we have a good story to tell."

The danger is, if that doesn't happen soon, no one will hear the story over the sound of squabbling.