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Splits over Europe could prove toxic for increasingly embattled prime minister.
LONDON, UK — The Nobel Peace Prize is often defined by its absences. So it should have come as no surprise that British Prime Minister David Cameron's refusal to join other EU leaders picking up this year's award in Stockholm on Monday was seen as highly symbolic.
But unlike in 2010, when jailed Chinese democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was represented by the hauntingly simple image of an empty chair, the signals sent by Cameron's lack of attendance were far more complicated — like the man himself.
To foreign observers, Cameron may appear to hold a firm grip on the levers of control. A polished statesman who comes across as intelligent, eloquent and insightful, it’s no surprise he’s successfully rekindled Britain's highly-prized "special relationship" with the United States.
On Britain’s side of the Atlantic, however, he has a very different image.
Cameron stands accused at home of deliberately steering Britain headlong into its worst recession in living memory in order to justify brutal welfare cutbacks that have helped impoverish millions of families.
He’s been called lazy and out of touch for his apparent failure to respond to the needs of his people, an image that’s been hardly helped by consorting with notorious figures from Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
And he’s fared little better on the continent. Deep fissures have formed within his own party over the UK's continued membership of the European Union. In his struggle to bridge them, Cameron has created enemies on both sides of the issue and threatened his country's credibility on the continent.
Against that backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that opinion polls forecast political doom for the prime minister. A recent YouGov survey of public voting intentions saw his Conservatives languishing 11 points behind the Labour Party’s 44 percent.
How did Cameron get here? And does his current predicament mirror his ideological partners in the US Republican party, whose determination to dismantle America's welfare and taxation systems threatens the future of the federal government?
Just two years ago, Cameron was seen as a golden boy. He helped rescue the Conservative Party from the doldrums after it languished for a decade while Tony Blair's Labour Party dominated the political scene.
"Cameron has tried to shift the Conservatives away from the view that they were the nasty party, obsessed with immigration and crime," said David Moon, a University of Liverpool expert on political rhetoric.
After becoming party leader, Cameron changed his party's logo to a leafy tree, talked about "hugging a hoodie" — embracing rather than condemning society's disadvantaged — and was photographed with huskies on a trip to witness melting ice caps.
Compared to Blair's gaffe-prone and peevish successor, Labour’s Gordon Brown, Cameron brandished a slickly constructed public persona. His tough economic policies were an antidote to the perceived profligacy of a Labour Party on whose watch the world descended into financial crisis.
However, Cameron was caught on the back foot even before entering government. Unable to secure a parliamentary majority, his conservatives were forced into an ideologically brackish coalition with the minority Liberal Democrat Party. Their uneasy partnership has frequently prompted his government to make policy U-turns and derailments.
And after Cameron’s soft approach failed to secure the desired parliamentary majority, it was all-but abandoned.
"Where once you had to hug a hoodie or husky, you've got attacks on environmental subsidies as 'Soviet' policies and new 'bash a burglar' laws that allow householders to use disproportionate force to attack intruders,” Moon says. “And then you've got a 50 pence in the pound tax rate that benefits those earning more than a million pounds a year while budget cuts badly affect the poor."
The government’s budget cuts, part of a $200 billion austerity program, haves torn giant holes in a welfare safety net that once promised cradle-to-grave protection.
However, Mark Garnett of Lancaster University insists Cameron isn’t a "state hater," but belongs to a more paternalistic tradition that shares more with Barack Obama than Mitt Romney.
"Some believe he is using the recession to set about a long nursed agenda to dismantle the welfare state,” he says. “My own hunch is that the cuts go against his principles and these are much more the acts of a pragmatist than an ideologue."
Still, many have found his government’s pedigree a bitter pill to swallow: Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne — the chief architects of austerity — are wealthy products of Britain's elite.
Both men were educated at Eton, the exclusive private school, and were enthusiastic members of the Bullingdon Club, a snobbish dining society, as undergraduates at Oxford University.
Moon argues that Cameron’s background appears to be both his making and his undoing as a politician. "He can prove himself to be an impressive statesman, but then he has an anger and arrogance,” he says. “It's two sides to the notion of 'born to rule.' On the one side he's very good at his job, but on the other, he doesn't like people who don't respect that."
Many critics have also picked up on Cameron’s perceived indifference over his country's difficulties. Earlier this year, a biography of the prime minister generated disquiet by suggesting he spends considerable time "chillaxing" by singing karaoke and playing computer games.
Lancaster University's Garnett says support for Cameron has also diminished within his own party because he fails to measure up to Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives' revered 1980s leader. He says that’s because they haven’t been forced to spend enough time in the political wilderness to escape her shadow.
Whereas Labour secured its first victory for 18 years in 1997 by abandoning much of its leftist heritage and hiring a "political gunslinger" in the shape of Blair, many Conservatives were reluctant to fully embrace a radically different leader.
"If the Conservatives had lost in 2010, they would have fallen out of love with the Iron Lady," Garnett said. "Instead, Cameron is seen as a moderate and a compromiser who’s too willing to work with his coalition partners and is not a worthy successor to the leader they idolize."
But it is Europe that presents the prime minister with his biggest image problem — and gravest political threat.
In the wake of the debt crisis that has brought several European countries to their knees, debate has raged over whether Britain should pull out of the EU to escape the burden of propping up weaker economies and what many see as overweening control from Brussels.
While many in the UK fear that would weaken the country's access to its key export market — even if it were granted preferential trading status — the debate has stoked rampant euroscepticism within the Conservative party.
That and the recent rise of UK Independence Party, an anti-Europe party that’s luring away Conservative voters, has forced Cameron to take a tough stance with the EU, including by recently vetoing a new treaty. In doing so, he has found himself walking a tightrope of political allegiances.
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Many eurosceptics, including London Mayor Boris Johnson, think Cameron isn't being tough enough. They want the prime minister to pull Britain out of the EU or at least hold a referendum on membership.
Although Cameron himself is a eurosceptic, Liverpool University's Moon says the prime minister realizes quitting the EU is unwise in the current economic climate. A referendum will harm him whatever the outcome by either delivering the exit he wants to avoid, or by firmly committing Britain to unpopular EU policies.
"Europe is such a toxic issue," said Garnett. "And until Britain leaves the EU it is going to remain an issue that will exercise Conservatives regardless."
Garnett says Cameron's lasting legacy may be to oversee a career-ending schism in the Conservative party as eurosceptic die-hards desert the pragmatists to align themselves with UKIP.
As he faces the prospect of losing his career to the gap between those two stools, it’s little wonder that as the EU enjoyed its crowning moment in Oslo, Cameron gave up his chair to someone else.