LONDON (Reuters) - Keen to rally his party's rebellious right wing and mollify an increasingly hostile press, prime minister threatened on Monday to reduce benefits for poor families with too many children as part of proposals to slash social spending.
Welfare is Britain's single biggest expense - 207 billion pounds this year - making it one of the most sensitive issues as the government struggles to fill a gaping budget hole, revive an ailing economy and counter public discontent over tough austerity measures.
In a speech on welfare reform, Prime Minister David Cameron criticised a "culture of entitlement" among the unemployed, contrasting it with the sacrifices made by working families.
"It has led to huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they're having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort," said Cameron, whose Conservative Party leads Britain's government coalition.
"At a time when so many people are struggling, isn't it right that we ask whether those in the welfare system are faced with the same kinds of decisions that working people have to wrestle with when they have a child?" he went on to say.
Dissent has been growing within Cameron's own Conservative party from those who believe that his austerity policies have been not tough enough.
Cameron proposed cutting housing benefits for people under 25, forcing unemployed single parents to prepare to return to work and reducing benefits for the long-term unemployed to force them to seek jobs.
In cutting benefits, however, Cameron risks his party regaining a toxic "nasty party" image.
Like many of his colleagues, Cameron comes from a wealthy background and his left-wing opponents accuse him of being out of touch with ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.
Yet, a YouGov opinion poll in February found that 74 percent of Britons thought the government spent too much on welfare, indicating public support for his stance.
The prime minister said his proposals were only meant to stimulate "debate". The most controversial ideas are unlikely to become policy soon, as the Conservatives are in coalition with the centre-left Lib Dems.
The reform ideas do, however, allow Cameron to differentiate his party from the Lib Dems ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015.
"Given the scale of the change I'm talking about and the long time frames involved, I'm exploring these issues not just as the leader of the coalition, but as a leader of the Conservative Party looking ahead to the programme we will set out to the country at the next election," Cameron said.
The Lib Dems said the proposals would not upset the two-party coalition.
"This is a Conservative Party leader's speech to the Conservative Party. This is something for 2015 and not for today," said a Lib Dem party source.
"You can acknowledge the dividing lines but still work perfectly well within a coalition. This is going to happen more and more in the coming years as the election approaches."
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy