British coalition strained after Liberals' losses
Britain's government was under strain Friday as voters punished the Liberal Democrats in local elections for cuts made by the Conservative-led coalition and looked set to spurn their voting reform efforts.
The party led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suffered huge losses across the country in Thursday's polls for local councils, while Prime Minister David Cameron's centre-right Conservatives survived largely unscathed.
A wretched day for the Lib Dems, the junior partners in the year-old coalition, appeared destined to get worse as voters appeared to have decisively rejected a change to the electoral system in a referendum held Thursday.
Scotland's separatist Scottish National Party meanwhile secured a historic majority in the devolved national assembly and vowed to hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom within the next four years.
Clegg said his party had taken the blame for the swingeing cuts to public spending introduced by the coalition to rein in Britain's record deficit, but insisted the Lib Dems would soldier on in the coalition.
"We have taken a real knock," Clegg said. "Where there is real anxiety about the deficit reduction plans that we are having to put in place, we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame."
Prime Minister David Cameron said he remained confident about the future of the coalition, an uneasy marriage of political rivals formed after a general election in May 2010.
"I am absolutely committed to make this coalition government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term," Cameron said.
He added that he would "pay tribute to the work that the Liberal Democrats have done."
But Clegg looked set for more humiliation when results are announced late Friday in the referendum on whether to switch to the alternative vote (AV) system for electing the British parliament, in which voters rank candidates by preference.
The Conservatives back retaining the current first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, while Clegg led the campaign for AV, a system which would benefit smaller parties like the Lib Dems.
Senior party figures said trust between the two parties had been badly damaged by a vitriolic referendum campaign in which the Lib Dems accused the Tories of making unfounded claims about the cost of introducing AV.
Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown hit out at Cameron for failing to distance himself from the "No" campaign's attacks on the party, and said coalition relations would be more "businesslike" in future, Ashdown said.
"The consequence is not that the coalition will break, there's a job to be done, it still will be done. But you cannot behave in that manner without affecting the trust and goodwill," he told ITV television.
Initial but incomplete turnout figures for the referendum released by the electoral commission were higher than expected, ranging from 35.5 percent in London to 50.7 percent in Scotland.
The referendum and the local elections in England on Thursday were held alongside elections for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond's hopes of holding a referendum on independence were boosted after his governing Scottish National Party (SNP) pulled off what he called a "stunning victory."
In the first overall majority for any party since the parliament opened in 1999, the Scottish National Party (SNP) battered the once dominant Labour Party to win 65 seats in the devolved 129-seat Holyrood assembly.
Salmond pledged to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the next four years, something he could not deliver in his first term as the SNP were outnumbered by unionists.
"Just as the people have bestowed trust in us, we must trust the people as well, and that is why in this term of the parliament we shall bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland's own constitutional future," he said in a speech after winning his own seat in the assembly.
In Wales, votes were still being counted but Labour was hoping to regain overall control of the national assembly, having spent the past four years in government with the left-wing nationalists Plaid Cymru.
© 2011 AFP