Britain's coalition no bed of roses but still intact

9th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

A year after their chummy first appearance in Downing Street's rose garden the honeymoon is over for the leaders of Britain's coalition, but this thorny union has surprised many by surviving for so long.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats have faced dissent in their parties and protests in the streets as they push through harsh austerity measures.

Tensions flared last week after the Lib Dems lost a referendum on voting reform and then suffered their worst results in local council elections in more than 20 years.

But Britain's first coalition government since World War II remains intact -- no small matter in a country where the idea of European-style political power-sharing is largely alien.

"David Cameron's biggest success is bolting this coalition together and actually using a coalition, which most people in Britain thought would lead to weak government and perhaps another general election almost immediately," Tony Travers of the London School of Economics told AFP.

The coalition deal was announced on May 11, 2010 and signed off by Lib Dem lawmakers in the early hours of the following day after the centre-right Conservatives fell short of a majority in a general election on May 6.

After days of horsetrading during which Labour premier Gordon Brown resigned, the Conservatives finally wooed their erstwhile foes, the centrist Lib Dems.

Clegg secured a concession on one of his party's most cherished causes -- a promise for a referendum in May 2011 on whether to abandon the first past the post system that Britain uses to elect its lawmakers.

Commentators jokingly compared the telegenic Cameron and Clegg to newlyweds after their relaxed double act at a news conference in the rose-lined garden of the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street on May 12.

Together they pledged a "radical" government that would introduce public spending cuts to tackle a record deficit left by Labour.

The smiles did not last long, however.

In October the coalition detailed its plans to triple university tuition fees, overhaul the welfare system and make big reductions in all government departments.

Protests erupted in London and turned violent on several occasions. Rioters in December attacked the car of Prince Charles and besieged the finance ministry.

And it was soon clear the Lib Dems were a shield for the Conservatives. Clegg in particular became a hate figure during the demonstrations for allegedly breaking his election promises.

Foreign issues including Britain's military role in Libya gave the coalition some breathing space at the start of the year, while the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29 provided a feelgood boost.

But in the week after the royal marriage the political one began to rupture, with a war of words over the referendum on whether to change to the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

Clegg accused the Conservative-backed "No" camp of "lies" and Lib Dem Energy Minister Chris Huhne likened its tactics to those of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

The result on May 5 ended with an overwhelming 67.9 "no" vote while the Lib Dems were hammered in local elections. Cameron's Tories, however, escaped unscathed.

Speculation remains that the Lib Dems may decide to cut their losses and pull out, knowing they face an electoral wipeout but deciding to do so with their principles intact.

But with both Cameron and Clegg insisting the coalition will see out its five-year term, reports of its demise seem premature.

"Whenever Nick Clegg and I speak, the one thing we come back to again and again is our determination to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the long term," Cameron wrote in the Mail on Sunday.

Clegg said on Sunday that the Liberal Democrats would be more assertive and could even veto planned healthcare reforms, but he too insisted the coalition would endure.

Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable said both parties must now adhere to the coalition agreement.

"The way of managing the chemistry was set out within those coalition agreements a year ago, and we're now beginning to realise on both sides how important it is we stick with those agreements," he said Monday.

Tony Travers, however, said Cameron's apparent solicitousness for his coalition partners may be a sign of further political cunning.

"Actually by embracing the Liberal Democrats he may even weaken them more than he weakens his own party as they (the Conservatives) inevitably become unpopular in mid-term," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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