Class catches Cameron, foes scent blood

Tue Apr 24, 2012 2:04pm EDT

* "Arrogant posh boy" jeer from own side wounds PM

* Cameron, Osborne products of wealth and privilege

* In tough times, Britons easily offended by rich

* Conservative party long dropped aristocratic leaders

By Mohammed Abbas

LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Derided as an "arrogant posh boy" by a member of his own party to cap a terrible month of headlines, British Prime Minister David Cameron is in danger of slipping past a point of no return as blunders pile up and friends turn to foes.

Powerful newspapers and allies who once fell over each other to sing his praises now accuse the expensively educated Conservative Party leader of "speaking for the few" and of "vanity globe-trotting" as the economy sputters and Britons suffer the harshest state spending cuts for a generation.

"Not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don't know the price of milk," said Conservative lawmaker Nadine Dorries in an excoriating attack this week on the premier and his finance minister George Osborne, the heir to a baronetcy.

"But they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others - and that is their real crime."

Pinning a label on them that may haunt the efforts of the two men to play down their privileged backgrounds, Dorries has crystallised worries among Conservatives - who largely abandoned aristocratic leadership half a century ago - that Cameron and his "posh" friend risk losing them the next election in 2015.

There has been as yet no overt internal move to challenge him, nor any clear shift in opinion polls to show Labour able to win back the power it lost in 2010 after 13 years in office.

But that broadside from Dorries, who makes much of her own modest upbringing, tapped a wider, grim mood in the party, even among those with little time for Dorries herself, an outspoken right-winger. "Even a broken clock is right occasionally," was among a torrent of approval on Twitter for her comments.

ARISTOCRATIC LINEAGE

Disparities in Britain's class-conscious society - where breeding, wealth and schooling still dictate the fortunes of vast swathes of the nation - are widening as the government forces through an austerity programme to tackle a record budget deficit and assure creditors jittery over the euro debt crisis.

In such difficult times, it is easy to see why Cameron has struggled to shrug off the electorally toxic "posh" tag, which contrasts sharply with those who have led the Conservatives since the 1960s, when the party ditched much of its aristocratic baggage in order to survive in a more egalitarian society.

Educated at Eton, arguably Britain's most exclusive school, Cameron can trace his descent from King William IV - his lineage the fruit of an 18th-century affair with a bawdy Irish actress.

Cameron's father was a wealthy stockbroker and his mother the daughter of a baronet - as is Cameron's wife Samantha, whose stepfather is a viscount from the moneyed Astor dynasty.

Both Cameron, 45, and Osborne, 40, were members while at Oxford University of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive 200-year-old dining society notorious for its boisterous drinking.

Compare that to Tory premiers of the recent past: builder's son Edward Heath, who succeeded the last earl to lead the party in 1965, his rival Margaret Thatcher the grocer's daughter and John Major in the 1990s, whose education ended at the age of 16.

Cameron's fall from grace cannot be laid at the door of his background alone. It has come amid a Europe-wide backlash against austerity measures which has savaged incumbent leaders and this week crippled French President's Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election prospects and toppled the Dutch government.

But with the coalition with the Liberal Democrats under strain - a reflection of Cameron's failure to lead his party to outright victory in 2010 - and other problems rising, there is a sense among Conservatives that something must change.

BAD TO WORSE

"It looks pretty bad," said a Conservative member of parliament who would discuss the topic only on condition of anonymity. "But I genuinely think things are going to get worse than this as cuts, such as they are, start really biting."

The furore over Cameron's failings comes at the end of a month of blunders that has seen the word "omnishambles" - coined on a satirical TV show about a government that stumbles from one crisis to another - enter common parlance.

Among the bad headlines for Cameron were those relating to a woman who accidentally set herself alight after ill thought-out government advice to store petrol at home in response to a threatened fuel supply strike; Osborne's annual budget was also torn apart by critics fuming over a tax cut for the highest earners and a "granny tax" limiting help for pensioners.

The prime minister has also been hit by a scandal in which a party treasurer was secretly filmed offering journalists posing as millionaires a private dinner engagement with him and Samantha at 10 Downing Street in exchange for large donations, reinforcing Cameron's image as the linchpin of an rich clique.

On Monday, a contrite Cameron attempted what was billed as a "fightback", promising to learn from his recent experiences.

"You have difficult weeks or difficult months. I want us to raise our game and do better," he told the BBC. "In two years, to have a couple of bad months is not surprising."

That cut little ice with one of Cameron's newest, most influential and harshest critics - media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born, American-based owner of Britain's widely read Sun and Times newspapers.

"If David Cameron thinks his government only has to 'raise its game', he is badly mistaken," said the Sun newspaper in its Tuesday editorial; it called Cameron "divorced" from the lives of Britons and urged him to "speak for the many, not the few".

Murdoch, who is fighting his own corner after a scandal over phone-hacking engulfed his News of the World tabloid last year, once backed Cameron. But a cosy relationship, in which the Sun editor and Murdoch's businesswoman daughter were part of a "Chipping Norton set" around Cameron's country home, appears to have cooled in the light of investigations into the scandal.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, Murdoch - whose Sunday Times broke the party funding affair - is not going quietly. This week he mocked government policy as "mad" and last month slammed his enemies as "old toffs and right-wingers".

And on Tuesday, Murdoch's son James revealed to an inquiry embarrassing details of contacts with the Conservative minister who was last year reviewing whether to let the family extend its interests in pay TV group BSkyB. That sparked more damaging headlines and intense pressure on Cameron to fire the minister.

The Sun's multi-page bashing of Osborne's budget speech - in which it called the event a 58-minute kicking for hard-working families - gave the Conservatives a taster of what life may be like without the support of the popular press.

THE WAY OUT

Cameron is far from universally loved by his centre-right party, whose grandees have been willing to tolerate his more centrist conservative instincts to keep the coalition government's left-leaning Liberal Democrat party members happy.

His recent woes have tickled rebels in the Conservative ranks and rekindled long-standing concerns that Cameron lacks ideological conviction and dedication to his job - that he is obsessed with style rather than substance.

A former PR executive, Cameron put the past month's gaffes down to "presentational" mistakes, an explanation that will rile those in his party who see deeper flaws.

Famed for his light-touch leadership, Cameron has also been criticised for acting more like a chairman than a chief executive, aloof from the fray and delegating the nitty-gritty of running the country to civil servants.

"There is a question whether civil servants do too much. I don't like it," the Conservative lawmaker who did not want to be named told Reuters.

Another Conservative parliamentarian, again speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cameron had had his "wake up call".

"It's a sign that we do need to sort things. Some of this would be helped by having a more coherent narrative. A clearer set of ideas. A clearer vision of what kind of country we're trying to create," the second lawmaker said.

Cameron's pet project, the much-trumpeted - and much- lampooned - "Big Society", in which people rely more on each other and a sense of communal charity and less on the state, is little understood by many Conservatives, let alone voters.

Yet for all the grumbling, the prime minister may have one saving grace: Labour, whose leader Ed Miliband is even less popular than Cameron after less than two years in charge, has failed to make capital out of Cameron's woes so far.

"My guess is the last month is not a game changer, partly because Labour doesn't actually at the moment have a credible alternative," said the second Conservative lawmaker.

"I'm confident we can win the London mayoralty and that will do a lot to restore confidence."

London mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative and fellow Old Etonian and former Bullingdon Club member, is favourite to win re-election next week, a result that would both soothe Tory nerves and, some say, keep a potential rival to Cameron out of the Palace of Westminster for the next few years.

With the capital also hosting big celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth as well the Olympic Games, Cameron will surely be hoping that a summer of aristocratic pageantry and popular mass entertainment can drive this worst of months from the nation's memory.