LONDON (Reuters) - Confidence in British Prime Minister David Cameron is slipping after the delayed resignation of a senior minister for swearing at a police officer added to a pile of gaffes damaging his ruling Conservative Party.
Upstaged by the charismatic and popular mayor of London, Cameron can ill afford to appear bumbling at a time when restiveness within his own party is on the rise and a fight is brewing over Britain’s ties with Europe.
Yet, his public relations team seems unable to dispel a growing perception of chaos in Cameron’s office - stumbling from one crisis to another and bogged down in trivialities as it struggles to reduce a big budget deficit.
The resignation on Friday of Andrew Mitchell after allegedly calling a policeman a “pleb” - an insult laden with snobbery - drowned out what should have been a week of good news for Cameron, with indicators pointing to a modest economic revival.
Mitchell, who denied using the word but admitted swearing, received Cameron’s support but resigned anyway after four weeks of bad headlines, compounding the view of a dithering prime minister unable to manage his party.
“The fact that this rolled on for four weeks has inevitably done damage to us. It would have been a storm in a teacup had it been dealt with swiftly and had Mr. Mitchell been dispatched as so many of our colleagues and I were saying,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Percy told Reuters.
“The inability to communicate our message has been pretty appalling to be honest,” he added.
The “plebgate” affair follows months of policy U-turns, botched policy launches and embarrassing revelations over Cameron’s ties with officials implicated in the phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper.
According to pollster YouGov, Cameron’s approval rating as Conservative leader is at 37 percent, recovering only slightly after this month’s party conference.
His rating dipped sharply in March after an annual budget marked by U-turns on unpopular taxes and a cut to the top rate of tax. Within the party, confidence seems to be sinking.
On coming to power in 2010, Cameron hired Andy Coulson, a former editor of the now defunct News of the World, to be his communications chief. Coulson was seen as good at gauging the public mood and conveying policy to Britain’s boisterous media.
Coulson quit last year amid the hacking allegations, and was replaced by former BBC executive Craig Oliver.
“The operation at Downing Street just seems chaotic,” a Conservative lawmaker told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“There’s no proper line management structure, there’s no one in control, they miss Andy Coulson massively and it just looks incoherent.”
A Downing Street source dismissed the criticism.
“There are always going to be difficult weeks when you’re in government,” the source said. “In the end what matters is have you got the big decisions right on the things that matter to people, like the economy, welfare and education.”
The government has staked its reputation on turning around Britain’s economy, and economists expect growth data due on Thursday to show an end to nine months of recession.
But modest economic improvement seems unlikely to cancel out Cameron’s negative press.
“Clearly the media team he’s got there don’t seem to be able to get retail stories out of a wholesale story on the economy that might actually be improving,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London.
“One of the problems is economic improvement is long term and difficult to grasp until people feel it in their pockets. The other stories are quite frankly more media sexy than stories about a small possible uptick in the economy,” he added.
Inflation fell to its lowest level in almost three years and employment rose to a record high data showed last week, yet finance minister George Osborne grabbed headlines for the “Great train snobbery”.
Osborne had sat in a train’s first class section with a only standard class ticket. An aide said he had paid for an upgrade. Public outrage ensued.
Along with “plebgate”, the incident highlighted the difficulty expensively educated Cameron and his cabinet of wealthy ministers have had in dispelling an elitist, upper class image.
Another potential headache for Cameron is the ascent of London’s effusive mayor, Boris Johnson, who is riding a wave of popularity after successfully hosting London’s Olympic Games. He is tipped as a possible next prime minister but has been coy on his ambitions, at least in public.
There are no other contenders on the horizon for Cameron’s job for now, but the implications of ebbing confidence in the prime minister are serious as his party readies for national polls in 2015.
The Conservative rank and file is becoming increasingly restless, with Cameron suffering his biggest rebellion in July over plans to reform parliament’s upper chamber, a key policy of the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
As well as severely straining the coalition, the rebellion prompted the Lib Dems to drop their support for proposed electoral boundary changes seen as favoring the Conservatives.
Compounded by a string of reversals resulting from a failure to grasp how the public might receive new measures, respect for government policy within the Conservative Party is sliding.
“It saps morale and people just stop fighting the good fight. The backbenchers (lawmakers without a government role) just do not defend things anymore, because they suspect a U-turn is coming,” the anonymous Conservative lawmaker said.
Conservative lawmaker Brian Binley told Reuters he had pleaded with Cameron to improve management skills at Downing Street, offering advice as a “critical friend, not an opponent”.
He added: “If you believe that the buck stops with the top man, then you have to say that it is David Cameron’s responsibility and he has to sort it out very quickly.”
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; editing by Philippa Fletcher