LONDON — A government may survive unpopularity, apathy, even scandal, but ridicule is another matter. Yet this is the present, sorry predicament that David Cameron's government finds itself in. As it marks ("celebrates" is clearly the wrong word) two years in power this week, the British prime minister's Conservative government is adrift in the polls and struggling to retain the electorate's respect. The depth of Cameron's predicament was made all the more apparent last week when, in an effort to put recent woes behind him, the prime minister tried to, as the hackneyed phrases have it, "draw a line" or "move on" from recent woes by "turning the page" and relaunching his government. However clever this strategy might have seemed in No. 10 Downing Street, it sent a quite different message to the country: A successful government needs no "fresh start" -- far less a total relaunch.
So when Cameron and his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, held a chummy news conference on May 8 in a tractor factory -- a venue chosen to demonstrate their commitment to boosting manufacturing and getting Britain back to economic growth -- they only succeeded in highlighting the unwelcome fact that Britain isn't working at present and, with the country suffering a (modest but painful) double-dip recession, growth seems but a distant prospect. They may still build tractors in Essex, but unemployment is at its highest in 15 years.
Nor have events elsewhere in Europe assisted an embattled prime minister. Election results in France and Greece, plus fresh turmoil in Spain and the Netherlands, have highlighted these as dismal times for incumbents. Worse still, from Cameron's perspective, is that so-called "austerity" is becoming unfashionable across Europe. Even if Cameron is correct to insist that Britain must reduce a deficit that -- even in these leaner times -- runs at 8 percent a year, the mood and fashion appears to be turning against him.
There is little prospect for relief. Polls show Cameron's Conservatives trailing Labour by as many as a dozen points; worse still, just 65 percent of 2010's batch of Conservative voters say they would back Cameron's party if an election were held next month. In such circumstances, a government needs all the support it can muster.
Yet Cameron's government has lost more than its share of friends. And what support it once had seems to be deserting it in droves. Backbench Tory MPs complain the prime minister and his chancellor, George Osborne, are "incompetent" or, just as bad, "out of touch." Meanwhile, even the right-wing press has turned on the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph -- a paper sometimes nicknamed the "Torygraph" -- now complains of about a "lack of basic competence" and warned that "Cameron cannot simply write off his party's unpopularity as the natural mid-term response to an administration bent on constraining public spending at a time of economic stagnation. In recent months, his Government has been shown to be flawed in gravely worrying ways."
For its part, the Daily Mail (perhaps the most influential paper in Britain) thundered that "the country will not forgive a government which fails to take the brave steps required to fix the economy and give the country a hope of a brighter future. Mr Cameron remains a man of genuine appeal and undoubted ability. He has three years until the election to prove his economic competency and his Tory principles. But the clock is ticking."
With friends like these, who needs enemies? The right has tired of the compromises imposed by the coalition government and wants the prime minister to rediscover his inner-Thatcherite. That means dropping plans for legalizing same-sex marriage or reforming the House of Lords and instead concentrating on cutting everything and anything. It means slashing public spending, taxes, immigration, regulations, and welfare. The papers note, with approval, that Boris Johnson was reelected as London's mayor on a populist conservative platform. When Boris -- as he is universally known -- returns (as it is presumed he will) to the House of Commons when his mayoral term is up, he will inevitably be seen as a rival and potential successor to Cameron.
Rather than suppose that Cameron's problems stem from the failure of austerity, the British right complains that Cameron has not been tough enough on public spending. Increased debt repayments and higher welfare payments -- the cost of rising unemployment -- mean that core government spending has only been reduced by 2 percent since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats replaced Gordon Brown in No. 10 Downing Street. In fact, Osborne's timetable for deficit reduction has slipped and now looks more like that proposed by Labour prior to the 2010 election than it does to Osborne's own original plans. A deficit that was supposed to be eliminated by 2015 will instead survive until at least 2017.