LONDON — Only a few weeks ago, David Cameron was riding high. The British prime minister’s March fete at the White House and bonding with President Obama at a college basketball game only served to feed his popularity at home, where talk was brewing of strong reelection chances and perhaps even a spot in the history books as one of Britain’s most politically deft leaders.
But a series of major missteps in recent weeks has whipped up a sudden tempest for Cameron, with at least one key poll showing a dive in public support that has brought his Conservative-led coalition its lowest approval ratings since coming to power in spring 2010.
The coalition itself — a novel union between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats — does not appear to be in immediate danger. But observers warn that the public backlash to the slew of blunders — including a cash-for-access scandal and a government-sparked fuel scare — has grown so acute that Cameron and his party could be reaching an unpleasant tipping point.
The government, they say, must begin to claw out of its hole quickly or risk the kind of irreversible slide with the public that saw the last Conservative government here, led by Prime Minister John Major, fall to the opposition in 1997.
“The question is whether this is a short-term lovers’ tiff or the beginning of a breakdown in the relationship between the people and the government, as happened with John Major,” said Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov polling firm. “We’ve reached a point where Cameron is vulnerable, and his mission to detoxify the party image is being undermined by a series of missteps.”
It marks a sharp role reversal for Cameron, who until recently had managed to largely sidestep scandals, including his hiring of a key aide who became embroiled in the phone hacking scandal last year that rocked media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s empire.
Cameron has actively sought to reinvent his party to broaden its appeal, moving the Conservatives sharply to the center on social issues by embracing, for instance, same-sex marriage. But his attempts to do away with his party’s image as a stodgy institution in bed with billionaires and callous to the plight of the poor have been severely undercut of late.
The troubles began with the March 21 unveiling of the new national budget, offering yet another dose of austerity to hard-hit Britain. The media latched on to new tax breaks for the rich and a “granny tax” aimed at pensioners.
Furthering the impression that the Conservatives are out of touch with the common man, George Osborne, the Oxford-educated chancellor of the exchequer — or treasury secretary — slapped an extra tax on savory British pasty pies and other fast-food snacks popular with the masses after admitting that he could not remember the last time he had actually eaten one. The ruckus was quickly dubbed “pasty-gate.”
Only days later, an undercover sting by the Sunday Times captured the Conservative Party’s treasurer, Peter Cruddas, offering a reporter posing as a businessman “premier league” access to Cameron in exchange for a $400,000 donation. The ensuing outrage left Cruddas without a job and Cameron scrambling in damage-control mode.
Next up were accusations that government warnings about a possible fuel-haulers strike sparked a panic that led Britons to stockpile gas. The strike, it turned out, was never called, and the panic ended up creating the very shortages the government’s warning was meant to prevent.
Topping off the worst two weeks of Cameron’s premiership were revelations last week of a government proposal to expand the surveillance powers of British intelligence agencies, letting them capture every e-mail, phone call and text message and access data such as times, frequencies and destinations without a warrant. After a major uproar — including criticism from key members of the government itself — officials appeared to backtrack, calling for a more extended discussion period before presenting the bill and seemingly pledging to water down key aspects of the plan.
“I think people will look back on the last few weeks and say, ‘That was when the Cameron project hit the buffers and this was when Labour had their chance,’ ” Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labor Party, told London’s Observer newspaper.
Still, it remains unclear whether Labor can capitalize. Although Labor is running as much as 10 points ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls, Cameron’s personal ratings — though down — remain significantly above the individual approval ratings for Miliband and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and head of the Liberal Democrats. That has Conservative strategists still betting on Cameron’s ability to win back lost ground and sustain the party by the time the 2015 elections roll around.
Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University, saw Cameron recently at a Downing Street reception and said that, despite his setbacks, “what struck me was how confident he was.”
Cameron “has a lot of personal confidence, and it’s possible for him to reconnect with the electorate,” Grant continued. “He is someone confident in his own skin, at ease with himself. Clearly there have been mistakes in the Downing Street machine, but Cameron does have the ability to explain things in plain, straightforward language, and there is still a possibility for him to recover.”
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.