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.
Two weeks of stumbles
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.