LONDON (Reuters) - Embarrassed by revelations of how he cozied up to Rupert Murdoch's scandal-hit British newspaper group, Prime Minister David Cameron has now lost what the relationship was supposed to deliver: support from the Murdoch press.
Recent hostility towards Cameron in the Sun, Britain's most-read newspaper, and its upmarket stablemate the Times, is widely seen as linked to Murdoch's anger over Cameron's handling of the phone-hacking debacle at his now-defunct News of the World.
Politicians from both of Britain's main parties, Cameron's Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party, have long believed Murdoch's 40 percent share of national newspaper readership meant that they needed his backing to get elected.
Cameron enjoyed that support for several years, but his past closeness with top people in the Murdoch empire has not saved him from a mauling now that the hacking scandal has forced the prime minister to distance himself from his former friends.
"Get real, PM", the Sun exhorted Cameron in an editorial on Thursday that was typical of recent attacks. It ridiculed the upper-class Cameron's efforts to "make himself look like a man of the people" and said he "still isn't speaking our language".
While the Murdoch press is unlikely to switch its support to Labour any time soon, its hostility is a problem for Cameron because it strengthens the popular perception of an out-of-touch government and emboldens the dissenters within his own ranks.
Another risk is that further down the line, the Murdoch newspapers could encourage a rival to challenge Cameron for the Conservative leadership before the 2015 election.
"It would not be surprising if the newspapers discover an alternative to David Cameron at some stage," said Roy Greenslade, author of several books on the British press and former number three at the Sun in its 1980s heyday.
The coalition government has run into a bumpy patch over the past two months with an unpopular budget that cut income tax for the rich at the expense of the elderly, news that the economy was back in recession and a series of other damaging blunders.
All national media, Murdoch and non-Murdoch, have criticized the government's performance, but experts note the previously supportive Sun has been particularly keen to stick the knife in.
"There's been a definite shift in tone to more skepticism about the Conservatives in the Sun since Leveson kicked off," said Adam Macqueen of investigative weekly Private Eye. Macqueen is one of the main writers of the magazine's "Street of Shame" section, which scrutinizes and lampoons the British press.
He was referring to the Leveson inquiry, a high-profile investigation into press standards ordered by Cameron in the wake of the hacking scandal. Evidence given in live televised hearings by dozens of witnesses has caused acute embarrassment to both Murdoch and Cameron over the past few months.
Appearing at Leveson last month, Murdoch said people who wanted to understand his thinking should look at the Sun.
The next day, the paper labeled Cameron and finance minister George Osborne "dipsticks" in a hard-hitting editorial that warned: "If there were an election tomorrow, who could say Ed Miliband might not win it?" Miliband is the Labour leader.
The Times is not holding back either. It ran a front-page story on Wednesday full of excruciating details of Cameron's once intimate friendship with Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Murdoch and ex-editor of the News of the World who resigned last summer as CEO of his British unit News International.
The Times cover story came two days before Brooks, who has been arrested twice in the police investigation into wrongdoing at News International, is due to testify at Leveson. Her appearance could inflict further damage on Cameron.
The Times article was based on excerpts from a critical book entitled "Cameron: Practically a Conservative", co-authored by Times journalist Francis Elliott and soon to be published by a unit of Murdoch's HarperCollins publishing arm.
A previous edition of the book, published before Cameron became prime minister in 2010, was entitled "Cameron: the Rise of the New Conservative" and was full of praise for him.
Murdoch himself let rip on Twitter in March after his Sunday Times exposed the Conservatives' party treasurer promising major donors access to the prime minister. The treasurer resigned and Cameron was forced to defend his and his party's integrity.
"Great Sunday Times scoop. What was Cameron thinking? No one, rightly or wrongly, will believe his story," the media mogul tweeted to his followers.
In a separate Twitter outburst, Murdoch railed at "toffs and right-wingers" in loaded comments not directly aimed at Cameron but reflecting the tycoon's anger towards the establishment running Britain. Toff is a derogatory term for upper-class people that is often thrown at Cameron by his opponents.
Editing by David Holmes