By Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron could be removed as leader of the Conservatives to prevent the party losing power in the next national election, a maverick lawmaker from his party warned on Sunday after a humiliating defeat in local elections.
The bluntest public demand to date by a lawmaker of his own party for a leadership challenge escalates the strife for Cameron as he grapples with keeping his coalition government together after the worst month of his two-year premiership.
A poorly presented budget which appeared to favor the rich, Britain's return to recession and the loss of 405 seats at local elections have convinced some Conservatives that Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne, lack the competence and strategy to win the next national election in 2015.
Nadine Dorries, a Conservative lawmaker who last month said Cameron and Osborne as "two posh boys" who don't know the price of milk, has gone one step further, saying Cameron could face a leadership challenge by Christmas.
"Cameron and Osborne should be aware: Conservative MPs will not sleepwalk into losing their seats," Dorries, whose outspoken but often prescient oratory has earned her the nickname "Mad Nad", said in an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
Though her comments are likely to be dismissed by Cameron supporters as absurd, Dorries warned that only 46 of the 305 Conservative lawmakers in the lower house of parliament were needed to spark a leadership challenge.
"I would guess those signatures are already coming in and will reach 46 by Christmas," she wrote, adding that Cameron's leadership could spark a schism in the party that would pave the way for a Labour victory in the next national election.
The most prominent Conservative politician outside the government is Boris Johnson, who dodged the local poll defeat by winning a second term as London mayor. Tipped as a possible future prime minister, Johnson pointedly made no mention of Cameron in his victory address after the mayoral election.
Dorries said rightwingers may defect en masse because they are unhappy at Cameron's attempt to court his pro-European Liberal Democrat coalition partners while shunning any talk of cooperation with the United Kingdom Independence Party, an anti-EU party that saw its support rise in the local election.
"If he continues in this vein, the right of the party may well split away, allowing Ed Miliband's Labour to glide comfortably into No 10 at the next election," Dorries wrote.
"This scenario can be avoided only by removing the men who are so stubborn and arrogant they cannot see the writing on the wall," the 54-year-old lawmaker wrote.
Cameron, who won the party's top job in 2005 on hopes he could win power for the Conservatives for the first time since John Major won the 1992 election, has staked his leadership on modernizing the party to attract a new generation of voters.
But after promising economic prudence since forming a coalition government in 2010, Cameron has been damaged by a return to recession and weeks of blunders that made ministers appear out of touch with voters struggling with high unemployment, price rises and low wages.
The local election defeat has added to concerns on the right of his party that his strategy of modernizing is a vote loser, especially while chained to his Liberal Democrat partners.
"His political strategy and positioning are failing to deliver," The Daily Telegraph, a supporter of the party, said in an editorial on Saturday. "He has alienated core voters without winning new ones."
Cameron's supporters say any shift to the right would be electoral suicide and that mid-term local elections often give voters a chance to punish an incumbent prime minister who then goes on to win the next national election.
But detractors say Cameron has stumbled into a series of dangerous blunders that could get worse as a scandal over illegal phone hacking by reporters at one of Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers lays bare the ties between big money, media barons and politicians.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson - two former News of the World editors with links to Cameron - will appear before a judicial press inquiry on Thursday and Friday.
Coulson moved from the paper to become Cameron's spokesman while Brooks is a former friend of the Conservative leader. Local media have reported that Brooks was willing to release text messages and emails between herself and the prime minister.
(Editing by David Brunnstrom)