British PM Cameron on ropes after "catastrophic" week

LONDON Sun Oct 21, 2012 5:48am EDT

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gestures at a news conference at the end of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Sebastien Pirlet

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gestures at a news conference at the end of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels October 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Sebastien Pirlet

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LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure to reassert his authority over a Conservative Party reeling after a week which saw the resignation of a senior minister and claims of incompetence and elitism at the heart of his government.

After one of the most bruising weeks for the center-right party since it took power in a coalition in 2010, the Conservatives have slipped further behind their Labour rivals, two polls showed on Sunday. The next election is due in 2015.

Cameron will try to regain the initiative in the week ahead with a speech setting out a tougher stance on law and order after a series of policy missteps, U-turns and embarrassments since an unpopular budget in March.

Veteran Conservative member of the House of Lords Norman Tebbit, one of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's closest allies, attacked what he called "this dog of a government".

"The abiding sin of the government is not that some ministers are rich, but that it seems unable to manage its affairs competently," he said in an interview with the Observer newspaper.

A headline in the Sunday Times talked of "Meltdown" in Cameron's Downing Street offices, quoting an unnamed former minister while the right-wing Mail on Sunday said it had been a "catastrophic week".

Cameron's judgment was called into question following a month of stories about Andrew Mitchell, the "Chief Whip" or party enforcer accused of swearing at police and calling them "plebs", a condescending, class-laden word for working people.

Opponents seized on the affair as evidence senior Conservatives form an arrogant elite, educated at the best schools and contemptuous of ordinary Britons struggling to cope during a recession that has eroded living standards.

MINISTER RESIGNS

Mitchell finally resigned on Friday, still denying he had used the word "pleb", but apologizing for swearing at police guarding the main gates to Cameron's office when they refused to let him through on his bicycle.

His departure did not end the debate about Conservatives and class. On the same day, finance minister George Osborne sat in a first class train carriage, even though he only had a second class ticket. Aides were quick to point out that he paid for an upgrade at the first opportunity. However, newspapers splashed the story across the front pages, suggesting it fitted a perception that the government is out of touch.

The government scrapped a bidding process for a private company to run one of Britain's busiest railway lines on October 3 after officials miscalculated rival offers, in another setback for the coalition.

Opponents also accused Cameron of incompetence on Wednesday when he said he would legislate to force energy companies to give customers their lowest tariff. The announcement appeared to surprise his own ministers and raised questions about what he meant and whether it would happen.

A ComRes poll in the Sunday Mirror newspaper put the Conservatives down two points from last month on 33 percent, behind Labour, up three on 41 percent. A second survey in the Mail on Sunday put support for the Conservatives at 30 percent, down five points in 10 days, with Labour 13 points ahead on 43.

Conservative ministers sought to play down talk of a crisis inside the party, insisting voters were more interested in "real issues" like the economy rather than bad headlines that are typical for any government mid-way through its term.

Official data due out on Thursday are likely to show Britain emerged from its second recession since the financial crisis in the third quarter, giving Cameron and Osborne some relief.

Sajid Javid, a Conservative Treasury minister, said on Saturday that data last week showing a fall in unemployment and inflation showed that the government was in control.

(Editing by Ron Askew)

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