Matt Dunham / AP, file
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron walks from number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament in London last week. Britain's economy has fallen back into recession for the first time since 2009.
LONDON -- As Britons vote in local elections Thursday, political insiders agree that the results will provide the best report card yet on whether Prime Minister David Cameron has been able to win hearts and minds during challenging times in the U.K.
Cameron could be in for a drubbing.
"David's beginning to lose his gloss as a leader," says Tim Knox of the right-leaning Center for Policy Studies. "Despite a lack of experience in the real world, he looks statesmanlike. But there's a real lack of hard convictions at the heart of the coalition."
For two years, Cameron's Conservative Party has ruled in alliance with the centrist Liberal Democrats, after none of the three main parties won an outright majority in the House of Commons.
Even though Cameron has steered the government to a position where it's widely expected to see out its term, contrary to some expectations, the ride has not been easy.
The coalition inherited a huge fiscal deficit and embarked on an austerity program the likes of which Britain had not seen in 60 years. It has sought to fund deficit reduction by cutting expenditures – on welfare, local government, pensions – and increasing tax revenues. Two years on, and with country in its second recession in three years, the cuts feel to many like the only part of the plan that is on track.
The experiences of Stuart Bradley, an electrician from Derby, an industrial city in the English Midlands, reflect those of many throughout the country.
"It's a real struggle at the moment ... there's always an extra bill that comes through," he says. "I thought they'd try to help the people just starting out in life, but it's not worked out like that."
And recent opinion polls suggest Ed Miliband, the leader of the center-left Labour Party, is regaining some of its popularity. Some commentators put this down to the electorate's doubts about whether Cameron is clear and consistent on policy matters.
'Taken his eye off the ball'?
This perceived lack of conviction could be one of the reasons why the government has frequently been seen to flip-flop since taking power, changing its mind on issues as wide-ranging as the fate of the country’s forests and taxes on charitable donations.
"At first, having second thoughts was taken as a sign of strength and confidence," says Matt Grist, senior researcher at the think-tank Demos. "But if it happens too often, it gives the impression of not really caring. David's let too many things fall off the back of the stove."
The co-author of a biography of Cameron agrees.
"Until recently, he was very good at being prime ministerial," says James Hanning, who co-wrote 'Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative' with Francis Elliott. "But increasingly there's the perception that he's taken his eye off the ball."
Hanning believes Cameron is much the same person he was when he took office, describing the prime minister as reliable, consistent and good under pressure.
In an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain expressed the need to continue placing 'massive pressure' on Iran without resorting to military action.
But without an enforcer of some kind, or press secretary who can help shape public presentation, "Cameron has allowed policy to slip under the radar," Hanning says.
For example, during the 2010 general election, one of Cameron's main campaign messages was his desire for a "big society."
As an aspiration – that society can and should take care of its own – the idea had plenty going for it, especially as big government had grown even bigger under Labour and was blamed by many for the huge public deficit.
But two years on, many feel no closer to understanding the idea of a big society and just how it might work in everyday life, Hanning says.
Russell Cheyne / Reuters, file
The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party Ed Miliband addresses the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Dundee, Scotland last month. If Labour does well in the election it will secure Miliband's leadership.
"He was raised in a community that looked after each other, that was seen to be caring and civic-minded. That's one of the ideas at the heart of the big society," he says.
The paradox, Hanning's says, is that same upbringing also made him suspicious of grandiose schemes and ideologies Knox, of the Center for Policy Studies, agrees that there's disconnect between person and policy.
"There are two key ingredients to government; competency and ideology," he says, "David Cameron has shown that he can lead, but on policy it is a totally different matter. In so many areas, there is a lack of clarity."
Demand for clearer policy, ideology
Issues of policy and consistency aside, Knox says he believes the prime minister compares favorably with previous Conservative leaders who led administrations during tough economic times.
But how far will voters go to punish the coalition government over the country's economic woes?
Demos' Grist says the recent shambolic handling of the budget, in which the government was seen to be grabbing money from retirees, has been particularly damaging.
"Normally, it would have been written off as being out-of-touch or incompetent," he says, "But in the context of a flat-line economy, it's really toxic."
If Labour performs well, it will help secure Miliband's leadership, enabling him to take more of the offensive when he and Cameron square off.
And if the Conservatives fare badly, it will be put down to a mid-term protest vote in the midst of a recession.
The key results, however, may lie elsewhere.
If the Liberal Democrats, who in past years have been strong contenders at the local level, are seen to lose badly (they lost 800 council seats in the 2011 elections), it may put pressure on the party leadership to differentiate itself further within the coalition.
They could push for an easing of austerity measures or possibly call for some clearer signals on policy and ideology. If that happens, it will be a true test of David Cameron as politician and statesman.
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