David Cameron may be tempted to see himself as a Colossus on the world stage after this week’s whirlwind tour of east Asia. His five-day trip, in which he breezed through palaces and swept past parades, culminated in his historic visit to Myanmar. As the first western leader to visit since independence in 1948, this was an important moment for a country inching towards democracy – and for Mr Cameron.
Yet even as the UK prime minister was taking tea with the celebrated democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, his prestige was being diminished at home. A report from the Foreign Affairs Committee warned that Britain’s influence abroad was being undermined by steep funding cuts in the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, a series of blunders since last month’s Budget has cost the government authority.
The reality is that Mr Cameron is walking on feet of clay. Both internationally and at home, the prime minister is suffering one of the roughest periods of his premiership.
Britain’s two most strategic partnerships – with the US and with Europe – are in question. The US is turning its attention increasingly to Asia, which may one day jeopardise London’s claim to a special relationship with Washington. And the pull of diehard anti-Europeans in Mr Cameron’s Conservative party has dragged the dialogue with Brussels to a new low.
Meanwhile on the domestic front, a normally politically astute government has failed to spot a string of public opinion landmines. A Budget, which was sound in its aims and fair in distributing the burden, was badly received even by the normally supportive rightwing press.
Rather than arguing the legitimate case for freezing tax benefits to the elderly and clarifying VAT on food, Mr Cameron allowed himself to become embroiled in a farcical debate about granny and pasty taxes. Worse, the government is undermining its own Big Society philosophy by cracking down on tax relief for charitable donations.
The public remains broadly supportive of the government’s efforts to get spending back on track. But given the mistakes of the past few weeks, it is understandable that approval ratings are falling. Credibility has been weakened.
When Mr Cameron returns from his Asian trip, redressing this credibility gap should be his priority. This will require a clearer definition of domestic and international strategies. Abroad, the prime minister has to prove there is more to British diplomacy than the promotion of trade. At home, where austerity offers little comfort, voters require a coherent and well-communicated vision for the next two years of government.
This is a tough challenge, but it is the only way forward.
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