* Internal party critics fan leadership speculation
* Discontent driven by poll ratings, poor state of economy
* Senior party figures dismiss leadership talk as nonsense
* Cameron, more popular than own party, determined to stay
By Andrew Osborn
LONDON, March 15 Two senior members of British
Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative party spoke
out to calm growing talk of a leadership challenge against him
on Friday, days before a closely watched budget announcement.
Halfway through a five-year term, Cameron's Conservatives
are trailing the opposition Labour party by 10 percent in the
polls, the economy is stagnant, some lawmakers say they are
unhappy with his leadership, and one of his ministers is being
touted as a possible replacement.
But on Friday, two senior party figures insisted Cameron's
leadership was not under threat ahead of a general election in
2015, dismissing media stories which have suggested others may
be positioning themselves to usurp him.
"David Cameron is more popular than all of us ... more
popular than all of the party in the country, which is a key
point that lots of people do recognise," said Conservative Party
Chairman Grant Shapps.
Talk of a leadership challenge was "for the birds and
certainly not for today," he told political magazine The House.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has himself been tipped as a
leadership candidate, agreed. "People need some sort of
political drama so they're inventing one. I think it's complete
nonsense," he told The Sun newspaper.
Cameron is going through a bruising time politically.
His party was beaten into third place in a vote for a
parliamentary seat this month, half of his party rebelled
against him over a gay marriage law last month and he is at odds
with his junior coalition partner on press regulation. He has
also been criticised for his ambiguous stance on an alcohol
Most analysts believe the malcontents are in the minority
and would have scant chance of unseating Cameron if they chose
to try. No serious rivals have emerged, they say, and even most
internal detractors think Cameron should remain leader.
But, as his finance minister, George Osborne, prepares for a
budget on Wednesday that will give the Conservatives a chance to
tip the political scales in their favour, Cameron's position
remains the subject of almost weekly speculation.
This week, Theresa May, the home secretary or interior
minister, delivered a speech that went well beyond her brief,
prompting media speculation she was angling for Cameron's job.
Labour taunted Cameron over the speech in parliament as
Conservative party strategists told MPs to curb their criticism
of Cameron on social media and to decide if they were
commentators or participants in the battle to win the next
Johnson said it was time for the party to unite.
"If ministers are setting out their stall now, it strikes me
as being very odd," he said. "They should save their breath and
cool their porridge. Put a sock in it and get on and back the
On a short visit to Paris, he also played down his own
leadership chances, using a typically eccentric turn of phrase.
"I have more chances of being decapitated by a Frisbee or
reincarnated as an olive than becoming prime minister," he said.
In a party political TV broadcast earlier this week, Cameron
shrugged off the speculation about his leadership as "rubbish".
"It's so vital that you look to the horizon and not
tomorrow's headlines, because there is a sort of daily battle of
this story and that event," he said. "It's all rubbish."
Several Conservative lawmakers disenchanted with his
leadership have said they would judge him by five "key tests".
In their eyes, he has already failed two of them after his
party lost a vote for a parliamentary seat in the constituency
of Eastleigh earlier this month and the country lost its
top-notch AAA credit rating in February.
Three tests remain: setting out a successful budget on
Wednesday, avoiding a triple-dip recession, and performing
reasonably well in local elections in May.