LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron sought to quell talk of a leadership challenge after a run of political setbacks, telling activists in his Conservative party on Saturday to concentrate on winning the next national election in 2015.
Cameron is under pressure from a growing number of party legislators and activists who have broken ranks to say they are unhappy with his policies. The economy is stagnant, heading for a possible third recession in four years, and the Labour opposition holds a 10-point lead in opinion polls.
Home Secretary Theresa May provoked media speculation she was aiming for Cameron's job when she delivered a speech last week that went well beyond her brief.
"Anyone in this party who's in any doubt who we should be fighting, what we should be debating, where our energies should be focused - I tell you: our battle is with Labour," Cameron told party members at a rally in central London.
"This is a bunch of self-satisfied Labour socialists who think they can spend your money better than you can, make decisions better than you can and tell you what to do, and we should never, ever let that lot near government again."
Half-way through a five-year term, many Conservative MPs are growing restless, fearful of defeat at the next national election and fed up with ruling in coalition with the Lib Dems.
Hit by the loss of Britain's top-notch AAA credit rating in February, Conservative spirits were further depressed when the party was beaten into third place in a vote for a parliamentary seat that it needs to win in 2015 to rule alone without a coalition.
Speaking days before a closely watched budget statement, Cameron told activists to hold their nerve, invoking the memory of former Conservative leaders including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, saying the party was building an "aspiration nation".
"We always knew we'd face pretty big challenges right now. It's mid-term ... We are recovering from the deepest recession since records began," he said.
Perhaps mindful of how deeply the issue divides his party, Cameron made no mention of his support for gay marriage. Last month, half his legislators voted against government plans to extend the right to marry to homosexual couples.
Although Cameron spoke to applause, Conservative commentator Iain Dale said he would have to do more to win over doubters within the party as well as voters across the country.
"When you talk to a Conservative audience ... you need to put a bit of red meat in there to get them going, and he didn't really do that this morning," Dale told BBC television.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
Our top photos from the past week.