PMQs verdict: Our limp leaders are overshadowed by despair

The Labour and Tory leaders have a small but significant problem. Neither are universally loved by their own party, but that's not it. It's that they're beginning to realise they are not especially loved by the country, either.

Parliament is starting to feel the effects. It is the slightest of shifts, but prime minister's questions is changing. The same old exchanges about it all being New Labour's fault continue to take place. Now, though, they are more evenly balanced by the coalition's own flawed record in office. Today's to-and-fro on unemployment underlined this. The Institute for Fiscal Studies' figures were "from 2008", David Cameron claimed, prompting completely unjustified excitement from the Conservative benches. In fact they cover the last five years – and the PM has been in No 10 for the majority of that time.

The economy has become a blame game in which both parties are doomed to lose votes. The winner becomes the one who can minimise the damage: Cameron by pouring scorn on Labour's record, the opposition by reminding voters of the pain of spending cuts. It is a negative dialogue which will alienate as many as it persuades.

This is the state of play with less than two years to go until the next general election – but it was not always meant to be like this. After the 2010 general election the unknowable future contained the strong possibility that a normal recovery from a normal recession would see prosperity starting to return. That was the basis on which Liberal Democrat delegates were persuaded to stick with the coalition at their autumn conference.

Now we are able to detect more clearly quite how bad the situation will be in two years' time. Austerity will be dragging on, rather than wrapping up. Living standards will have declined under this government, and its policies will have ensured inequality is rising once again. Worst of all for those shouting at each other in the Commons chamber, neither side will have a strong expectation that an overall majority is achievable.

"The crimson tide is back," Miliband observed at the lowest point of this lunchtime's clashes. His very personal jibe shows just how unpleasant and dirty this fight is getting. Miliband always seems a little uncomfortable when going for the jugular – or perhaps that should be the rosy cheeks. His awkward attempts to do so just reveal his discomfort.

Cameron's struggles with the economy are testament enough to his difficulties. He was below par on the issue which matters most to voters today. "Of course living standards are under pressure – that is why we're freezing, er, council tax." Everyone present knows the problem goes much deeper than that. "No answer from the prime minister," Miliband declared.

The leader of the opposition was right to let Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen do his job for him. He used his final question to the PM to quote back Bridgen's weekend attack on his party leader, in which he likened Cameron to the pilot of an aeroplane who "doesn't know how to land it". In Bridgen's view this leaves the Tory passengers with limited options. "We can either do something about it before the crash, or sit back, watch the in-flight movies and wait for the inevitable," he wrote.

Cameron's response was rather limp: "He hasn't even gone on the aeroplane because he hasn't got a clue!" He did better by quoting David Blunkett complaining that Labour is "going nowhere". This was a more reasonable attempt to make the point that both party leaders are plagued by malcontents.

The question they should be asking is: why? It's because both teams feel they are facing a tough fight with radically reduced chances of victory. The party which sticks together the most could, in the end, squeak home.

These things matter, which is why the other significant trend emerging from this week's PMQs could prove the start of something important. Conservative MPs have taken to cheering their backbenchers with an enthusiasm more usually reserved for their party leader. It started just before noon, when Suffolk Coastal's own Therese Coffey received a rabble-rousing reception before her contribution to international development questions. During PMQs it happened again and again: Jessica Lee received a rapturous welcome. Patrick Harrington got a hearty cheery. Even Andrew Bellingham was firmly slapped on the back by his fellow backbenchers.

Contrast this with the fate afforded to Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem punchbag from Cambridge. He has taken over Simon Hughes' mantle of the floppy liberal the Tories just love to hate. Huppert is now being greeted by exaggerated groans and abuse every time he stands up in the Commons' high-profile sessions; on this occasion he had to be rescued by Speaker John Bercow, who insisted Huppert's "democratic right" to ask a question would be respected.

These are odd trends, but important ones. As the party leaders descend into a grubby shouting match, grounded in the predictable and overshadowed by despair, it is the Conservatives who appear the more united, cohesive group in the Commons chamber. Whether or not this mood is reflected in the parties' activists at large is another matter – but in Westminster, at least, the Tories seem a more robust political force. Could it be that coalition politics has helped define their sense of identity?