Britain's odd couple must work together in Downing Street

12th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

David Cameron and Nick Clegg, Britain's new ruling team, share a gilded background but traded insults in the election race which, along with key policy differences, may haunt their coalition government.

Prime Minister Cameron has long been lambasted in parts of Britain's press as a "Tory toff".

He was educated at Eton College, Prince William's old school, and Oxford University, where he posed for a famous photo in bow tie and tails with fellow members of a socially exclusive dining club called the Bullingdon.

Clegg's upbringing, while less widely reported, is almost as privileged.

His father is a wealthy City of London banker and Clegg attended Westminster, another top private school, and Cambridge University, where his contemporaries included Oscar-winning film director Sam Mendes.

Cameron, the Conservative leader, and his deputy Clegg, who heads the Liberal Democrats, are also both 43 and have glamorous wives and young families who have been thrust into the media spotlight by their success.

But on policy, the two men have some big differences and have been less than complimentary about each other in the past, as Cameron acknowledged at their first joint press conference at Downing Street Wednesday.

When asked if he regretted once saying "Nick Clegg" when asked what his favourite joke was, Cameron gave an embarrassed laugh before admitting: "We're all going to have things we said thrown back at us."

For his part, Clegg said there was a "gulf in values between myself and David Cameron" during the campaign for last week's general election.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two men is on Britain's role in the European Union.

Their coalition government has announced Britain would not join or prepare to join the euro in the next parliament, an important statement for the Conservatives.

Cameron's party, which has a strong eurosceptic tradition, campaigned during the election for a change in the law so Britain cannot join the European single currency without a referendum.

The Tories' decision to break away from the main centre-right European Parliament grouping and form an anti-federalist alliance with fringe parties prompted Clegg during the campaign to accuse Cameron of working with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists (and) homophobes."

The Lib Dems campaigned in favour of joining the euro but only after a referendum when the economic conditions are favourable.

Cameron accused Clegg of wanting to "give in to everything that comes out of Brussels."

Some commentators have argued that Clegg's background informs his more Europhile outlook -- his mother is Dutch and his father half-Russian.

But it also reflects the views of his party, which although centrist has left-wing elements, such as its wish to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent and a proposed new generation of nuclear power stations.

Along with any personal differences between Cameron and Clegg, their parties could be a further stumbling block to the success of the coalition.

Many Liberal activists discussing the deal on the website voiced delight that they were back in government for the first time since 1922 -- but others were dismayed at the trade-offs the party had to make.

"A sunshine day for Liberals to rejoice and reflect on having some power," wrote one, while another accused the party of a "sell-out" and said she was quitting to join Labour, despite her "hate" for them.

On Tuesday, there were also signs of discontent among Conservatives when senior lawmaker Malcolm Rifkind accused Clegg of "duplicitous" behaviour for negotiating with Labour about forming a coalition as well as with the Tories.

Now that a deal has been struck, both sides seem determined to put the past to one side and make the best of the situation. Commentators say they have little choice.

"Ultimately, this is a victory for both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg, whose fortunes and future electoral prospects are now inextricably bound together," Michael Brown, an ex-Conservative lawmaker, wrote in the Independent Wednesday.

© 2010 AFP

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