LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure to reassert his authority over a Conservative Party reeling after a week which saw the resignation of a senior minister and claims of incompetence and elitism at the heart of his government.
After one of the most bruising weeks for the centre-right party since it took power in a coalition in 2010, the Conservatives have slipped further behind their Labour rivals, polls showed on Sunday. The next election is due in 2015.
Cameron will try to regain the initiative on Monday with a speech setting out a tougher stance on crime after a series of policy missteps, U-turns and embarrassments since an unpopular budget in March.
Veteran Conservative member of the Lords Norman Tebbit, one of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's closest allies, attacked what he called "this dog of a government".
"The abiding sin of the government is not that some ministers are rich, but that it seems unable to manage its affairs competently," he wrote in the Observer newspaper.
Education Secretary Michael Gove dismissed headlines talking of "Meltdown" and a "Catastrophic Week" as the passing "froth of political life" that affects all leaders, including ex-Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who won three elections.
"I remember reading about Tony Blair's worst week ever. No matter how many of these worst weeks he had, no matter how many apparently tough headlines there were, he came surging through with landslide majorities because the fundamental policy decisions...mattered more than the reporting of personality issues," he told Sky News.
Voters are more interested in the improving economy and falling hospital waiting lists, he added. Figures on Thursday are likely to show Britain has emerged from recession.
Cameron's judgement was questioned after he backed Andrew Mitchell, the minister accused a month ago of swearing at police and calling them "plebs", a class-laden word for working people.
Opponents seized on the affair as evidence senior Conservatives form an arrogant elite, adrift from ordinary Britons hit by the recession.
Mitchell finally resigned on Friday, still denying he had used the word "pleb", but apologising for swearing at police who refused to open the main security gates at Cameron's Downing Street office to allow him through on his bicycle. That did not end the debate about Conservatives and class.
On Friday, Chancellor George Osborne sat in a first class train carriage with a second class ticket. Aides said he paid for an upgrade, but the story still dominated headlines and fuelled a perception the Conservatives are out of touch.
Opponents accused Cameron of incompetence over a botched rail franchise process on October 3 and an unclear announcement on energy bills on Wednesday.
A Sunday Mirror poll put the Conservatives down two points from last month on 33 percent, behind Labour, up three on 41 percent. A second poll had Cameron's party on 30 percent, down five percent in 10 days, with Labour on 43 percent.
Labour said Cameron's crime pledges were designed to help him win back support from disgruntled members of parliament.
"This is empty rhetoric from a weak prime minister who is pandering to the backbenchers that forced out Andrew Mitchell," said Labour justice spokesman Sadiq Khan.
(The story corrects to say "wrote in the Observer" not "told the Observer" in paragraph 5)
(Editing by Ron Askew)