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Cameron and his 'party of the rich' struggle to shake elitist image

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 26, 2012.

ARND WIEGMANN/Arnd Wiegmann /Reuters

David Cameron is a rich guy. That is one thing the British people know about their Prime Minister – and, much to the disadvantage of his Conservative Party, it is increasingly the only thing they know.

A poll released Tuesday morning shows that two-thirds of Britons believe that Mr. Cameron's Tories are "the party of the rich" - - precisely the image he has spent three years struggling to erase.

Those results arrive in a week dominated by a fundraising scandal in which a sting by the Sunday Times caught Mr. Cameron's chief fundraiser offering private lobbying access to the Prime Minister in exchange for a donation of 250,000 pounds.

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On Tuesday morning, Mr. Cameron released a list of similar big-ticket donors who were given private dinners at Mr. Cameron's residence - - full of embarrassing details such as the fact that Mr. Cameron often personally cooked them dinner in 10 Downing Street's kitchen.

He might have got away with all this, if it hadn't happened only a week after he released a controversial budget – in the midst of a harsh budget-cutting austerity drive – that offered a tax cut to the wealthiest Britons while freezing benefits for the elderly.

It was not meant to be that way. Mr. Cameron came into politics as the figurehead of the "Notting Hill" Tories - - a group of socially liberal, urban Conservatives known by the name of the formerly slummy London neighbourhood (and Hugh Grant movie location) that Mr. Cameron and several of his current ministers called home.

They were pro-gay, environmentalist, broadly favourable toward immigration and ethnic minorities, and not interested in the bring-back-hanging, ditch-the-European-Union, legalize-fox-hunting bloviations of the semi-aristocratic "shire" Tories or the obsessions with abortion, sexuality and family values embraced by the party's social-conservative Cornerstone Group.

But the association with big money was hard to escape. During the election campaign, he struggled to dodge reports that his personal wealth was 30 million pounds and embarrassing photos that showed him at exclusive Oxford University drinking clubs with clusters of aristocrats sporting trashy '80s haircuts.

He was able to dodge it, though, and his coalition government has generally seen solid support (in good part because the opposition Labour Party has been collapsing into disarray).

But the funding scandal has come at exactly the wrong time, as it comes at a moment when his party is vulnerable to two accusations: That they are controlled by the wealthy elite, and that they are ethically questionable.

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After all, Mr. Cameron only recently faced headlines noting that he had hobnobbed regularly with media baron Rupert Murdoch and his top executives - - right up to riding the horse given to the Metropolitan Police in an allegedly corruption-laced gift to Rebekah Brooks, the editor of the Sun. She has been arrested in the tabloid scandal – and Mr. Cameron's chief communications aide, the former Murdoch executive Andy Coulson, was forced to quit after he, too, faced arrest in the scandal.

Now it seems as if everything that touches Mr. Cameron involves either wealthy donors or questionable business activities, and often both - - even though there are no suggestions that Mr. Cameron himself has done anything out of sorts.

Even his friends aren't helping. Another former Cameron aide, the conservative blogger Paul Goodman, tried to defend him in print Tuesday by arguing that the real victims of the cash-for-visits affair were the donors themselves. He ended up damning his old boss with faith praise: "I have worked with him," Mr. Goodman conceded, "and I promise you that he's really, really good at smiling and nodding agreeably. Admittedly, he is less good at smiling and nodding agreeably at his own MPs than smiling and nodding at donors."

Normally, British voters are rather blasé about donations scandals. After all, Mr. Cameron's predecessor Tony Blair survived a similar scandal involving wealthy donors getting seats in the House of Lords in exchange for big donations. But Mr. Cameron knows that the key to Tory success, as pioneered by Margaret Thatcher the shopkeeper's daughter, lies in projecting an image of hard-working ordinariness, and avoiding any connotations of fox-hunting aristocracy. On that front Britain's prime minister will have to eat a lot of fish-n-chips before the next election.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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