It has been a year of worse news after bad for British Prime Minister David Cameron, eye-popping scandals following humiliating political setbacks. The past 10 days alone have seen the jailing of his former spokesman on phone-hacking charges and the bobbling of a sensitive inquiry into allegations that a ring of high-powered pedophiles had operated in and around Parliament in the 1980s.
Yet the improbable coalition between his Conservatives and the left-wing Liberal Democrats hobbles intact into a fifth year. And – just as surprisingly – no one can rule out another Cameron-led government following the next election, now just nine months away, in large part because the opposition Labour Party has failed to exploit the struggles.
A Sept. 18 referendum on Scottish independence looms large as Mr. Cameron’s next, and biggest, test in office, with polls suggesting the pro-union camp’s once-wide lead may have shrunk to single digits. The Scottish National Party has used Mr. Cameron, whose Conservative Party has struggled for decades in Scotland, as something of a campaign prop – proof that Scots would be better off governing themselves.
Mr. Cameron’s annus horribilis began last August when Parliament denied him a mandate to order military intervention in Syria, making him the first British prime minister to lose a war-and-peace vote since Frederick North was defeated over his plans to end the American War of Independence.
The arrest and conviction of his former spokesman, Andy Coulson, on phone-hacking charges dating back to Mr. Coulson’s time as editor of the tabloid News of the World was a body blow.
His Conservative Party’s third-place finish in European elections in May, with the euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) swiping much of the party’s right-wing vote, was a historic low.
Mr. Cameron has now risked making the scandal surrounding the alleged sexual abuse of children – which has its origins in the 1980s when another Conservative, Margaret Thatcher, was prime minister – into a problem for his own government. On Tuesday, he controversially appointed Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to head an official inquiry despite the fact her late brother was the attorney-general who declined to investigate the allegations 30 years ago. That’s led to accusations Mr. Cameron is not serious about getting to the bottom of the tawdry mess.
The Conservative Party could also be badly damaged if it emerges that Lord Leo Brittan – Mrs. Thatcher’s home secretary of the time who now sits in the House of Lords – mishandled a dossier of 114 files that a whistleblowing MP handed him in 1983 and that outlined the pedophile ring allegations. The dossier is now missing, and a senior civil servant has suggested the files were likely destroyed.
Mr. Cameron’s domestic and European policies have also come under attack. Millions of public sector workers took to the streets of London and other cities Thursday in a one-day strike against the government’s austerity policies. And the new European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker – angry at Mr. Cameron’s failed effort to block his appointment – topped things off by giving a public thumbs-up to the idea Mr. Cameron could be out of office less than a year from now.
Despite the outward appearance of a government lurching from crisis to crisis, Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives remain just a few percentage points back of the opposition Labour Party in most polls, and slightly ahead in at least one.
Critics have dubbed the Eton- and Oxford-educated Mr. Cameron the “Teflon toff” because of his ability to survive the scandals. But his buoyancy in the polls could be more of a testament to a weak field of rivals than his own political talents.
A YouGov/The Sun poll published Thursday showed the Labour Party with a skimpy three-point lead among decided voters – at 37 per cent support to 34 per cent for the Conservatives – despite a resounding 53 per cent who said they didn’t approve of the Cameron government’s performance in office. The poll had a 3-per-cent margin of error.
Labour’s lead may be less than it looks. Many voters who now say they’ll support UKIP (which is running third with 12 per cent) are expected to veer back toward the Conservatives in a close election race.
“Usually, at this juncture we’d expect the Labour Party to be far, far ahead,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer on British politics at Leeds University. “Labour is not creating any open water between themselves and the Conservatives.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband receives much of the blame for Labour’s stagnation. A series of his own miniscandals – including a badly fumbled attempt earlier this year to eat a man-of-the-people bacon-and-ketchup sandwich, followed by an awkward non-answer on morning television when asked about his family’s living costs – have created the impression that he’s too odd and distant to be prime minister.
One poll showed voters wished that his brother David, who finished second in the 2010 race to succeed Gordon Brown, had won the Labour leadership instead.
“Ed Miliband has a lot of problems as leader. Many people on his own side have taken the view that he’s not up to the job,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
Worse off is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who alienated much of his own Liberal Democrat party by joining Mr. Cameron’s coalition in 2010.
It was a move designed to show the Liberal Democrats were ready for the responsibilities of government, but has badly tarnished the party as Mr. Clegg has often come across as Mr. Cameron’s mute sidekick, sometimes supporting policies that directly contradicted promises he made on the campaign trail.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that Nick Clegg will resign [as party leader] after the next election,” Dr. Honeyman said. “He’s a tainted brand, I’m afraid.”
But a lot could still change before the next elections in May, particularly with the Scottish referendum tightening.
Polls in Scotland have varied widely, and while a “No” vote is still likely, the final result may be much closer than many in London anticipate.
The loss of Scotland would be catastrophic (The Spectator magazine devoted its cover this week to mourning what would be left of “Little Britain” if Scotland leaves) and even a narrowly won vote could damage Mr. Cameron.