Britain's battered coalition in low-key anniversary

11th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg vowed his Liberal Democrats would take a more "muscular" role in the coalition as it marked its first anniversary Wednesday with little celebration.

A poll showed that public confidence in the government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was at an all-time low after a year of austerity measures aimed at slashing Britain's record deficit.

The centre-right Conservatives and their centrist junior coalition partners agreed one year ago to form a government after elections produced a hung parliament.

However, the coalition has since faced violent protests against its spending cuts.

A spokeswoman for Cameron's Downing Street office said it was "business as usual" on the anniversary, adding: "What we are doing is ensuring we continue to deliver on the coalition programme."

Days after the Lib Dems suffered their worst ever results in local elections and lost a referendum on changing Britain's voting system, Clegg defended the government as a "coalition of necessity".

But he said the Lib Dems would also make their influence more visible.

"We will stand together, but not so closely that we stand in each other's shadow," he said in a speech.

"You will see a strong liberal identity in a strong coalition government. You might even call it muscular liberalism."

Clegg sat grimly alongside Cameron in the House of Commons for the weekly prime minister's questions session on Wednesday as the premier defended the coalition's record on healthcare.

Together, they are due to address business leaders on youth employment at an event on Thursday.

When Cameron and Clegg gave their first press conference last year in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, the privately-educated pair were jokingly compared to newlyweds because of their bonhomie.

But the referendum campaign exposed deep rifts as the Lib Dems accused the Conservatives of dirty tricks by savaging Clegg for breaking promises that he made before the 2010 election.

The Lib Dems said he only broke those pledges to approve the coalition's austerity measures, which have seen a hike in university fees and widespread cuts across government departments and in welfare.

Tensions mounted after last week's election results, with Clegg saying at the weekend that the party could block the coalition's planned healthcare reforms.

Cameron rejected Clegg's claims that the Lib Dems could be a "moderating influence" on the Conservatives but insisted that the coalition remains a "partnership."

"We work together as a partnership. The Lib Dems have a huge opportunity in this government," he said in an interview with the BBC.

"For the first time in 60 years, they have a chance to prove themselves as a party of government and that it is what they are doing."

But public support for the coalition appears to be dipping.

A ComRes/ITV News poll showed 53 percent of Britons say the coalition's record is disappointing and 49 percent say the coalition is "bad for Britain". That figure has steadily increased from 33 percent in November.

The poll also reveals overwhelmingly negative opinions of Clegg, with 82 percent saying they do not or do not know whether to trust him and only 24 percent saying he is a good leader for his party.

Cameron was not trusted by 48 percent of those surveyed. Only 28 percent of people thought the coalition could see out its full five-year term to 2015, according to the poll of 2,005 adults between May 6 and 8.

In Scotland, there was another potential headache for the coalition as the devolved national assembly met for the first time since the separatist Scottish National Party swept to victory in last week's elections.

First minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond has vowed to seek a referendum on independence after winning a majority in the parliament. Cameron has vowed to keep the United Kingdom together "with every single fibre I have."

© 2011 AFP

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