A man divided: Britain's David Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron chats during a roundtable meeting at the EU Headquarters on December 13, 2012, in Brussels.
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LONDON The Nobel Peace Prize is often defined by its absences. So it should have come as no surprise that British Prime Minister David Cameron's refusal to join other EU leaders picking up this year's award in Stockholm on Monday was seen as highly symbolic.

But unlike in 2010, when jailed Chinese democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was represented by the hauntingly simple image of an empty chair, the signals sent by Cameron's lack of attendance were far more complicated -- like the man himself.

To foreign observers, Cameron may appear to hold a firm grip on the levers of control. A polished statesman who comes across as intelligent, eloquent and insightful, it's no surprise he's successfully rekindled Britain's highly-prized "special relationship" with the United States.

On Britain's side of the Atlantic, however, he has a very different image.

Cameron stands accused at home of deliberately steering Britain headlong into its worst recession in living memory in order to justify brutal welfare cutbacks that have helped impoverish millions of families.

He's been called lazy and out of touch for his apparent failure to respond to the needs of his people, an image that's been hardly helped by consorting with notorious figures from Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

And he's fared little better on the continent. Deep fissures have formed within his own party over the UK's continued membership of the European Union. In his struggle to bridge them, Cameron has created enemies on both sides of the issue and threatened his country's credibility on the continent.

Against that backdrop, it's hardly surprising that opinion polls forecast political doom for the prime minister. A recent YouGov survey of public voting intentions saw his Conservatives languishing 11 points behind the Labour Party's 44 percent.

How did Cameron get here? And does his current predicament mirror his ideological partners in the U.S. Republican party, whose determination to dismantle America's welfare and taxation systems threatens the future of the federal government?

Just two years ago, Cameron was seen as a golden boy. He helped rescue the Conservative Party from the doldrums after it languished for a decade while Tony Blair's Labour Party dominated the political scene.

"Cameron has tried to shift the Conservatives away from the view that they were the nasty party, obsessed with immigration and crime," said David Moon, a University of Liverpool expert on political rhetoric.

After becoming party leader, Cameron changed his party's logo to a leafy tree, talked about "hugging a hoodie" -- embracing rather than condemning society's disadvantaged -- and was photographed with huskies on a trip to witness melting ice caps.

Compared to Blair's gaffe-prone and peevish successor, Labour's Gordon Brown, Cameron brandished a slickly constructed public persona. His tough economic policies were an antidote to the perceived profligacy of a Labour Party on whose watch the world descended into financial crisis.

However, Cameron was caught on the back foot even before entering government. Unable to secure a parliamentary majority, his conservatives were forced into an ideologically brackish coalition with the minority Liberal Democrat Party. Their uneasy partnership has frequently prompted his government to make policy U-turns and derailments.

And after Cameron's soft approach failed to secure the desired parliamentary majority, it was all-but abandoned.

"Where once you had to hug a hoodie or husky, you've got attacks on environmental subsidies as 'Soviet' policies and new 'bash a burglar' laws that allow householders to use disproportionate force to attack intruders," Moon says. "And then you've got a 50 pence in the pound tax rate that benefits those earning more than a million pounds a year while budget cuts badly affect the poor."