Cuts spark tensions in British PM's party and coalition
British Prime Minister David Cameron is unleashing a wave of austerity measures, but his plans to shrink state spending grate with some inside his coalition and even his own party.
"Together in the national interest": the slogan appears on dozens of flags at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, central England, where Cameron's Conservative Party is holding its annual conference this week.
Five months after the centre-right party formed a governing coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats -- deemed by many to be an unnatural marriage -- the Conservatives are trying to prove that they are united in support for the sharp round of budget cuts due on October 20.
However, the facade of unity in Birmingham does not mask the dissenting voices.
In an embarrassing incident last week, a leaked letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Cameron warned that if his ministry's budget was slashed by the predicted 20 percent, it would have "grave political consequences for us".
"Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war," he wrote.
Fox, from the Conservative right, has been joined in the fight by the plain-speaking Business Secretary Vince Cable, a figure on the Liberal Democrat left.
Cable has underlined the importance of defence contracts for jobs, particularly at Scottish shipyards.
According to Unite, Britain's biggest trade union, more than 55,000 jobs could be at risk nationwide.
"We've been left a defence budget that was 38 billion pounds overspent and I have to say of all the things I've seen as prime minister, it's the thing that shocked me most -- the mess that was left by the last Labour government in terms of defence," Cameron told BBC television on Tuesday.
The military will be "well-equipped", he said, reaffirming his commitment to renewing Trident, Britain's nuclear weapons system.
The estimated 20-billion-pound cost is defended to the hilt by the Conservatives, while the Lib Dems see scrapping Britain's nuclear deterrent as the chance to make huge savings.
The Trident issue crystallises the way Cameron has to bridge the gap after the Conservatives failed to secure an outright majority in the general election: to keep the Lib Dems in the government, he has to make concessions to the left, while also placating the Tory hardcore.
Christopher Chope, a secretary of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said: "It seems as if the coalition is proceeding on a basis of continuous appeasement without consulting the backbenches.
"Ministers are effectively being held to ransom by a small group of Liberal Democrats, who are in a sense the tail wagging the dog on too many occasions."
The Conservative right continues to believe that the party has sold its soul in forming a coalition with the Lib Dems, the junior partners.
The faction only amounts to a minority within the party, but does not miss an occasion to make itself heard, as witnessed after Monday's announcement that child welfare payments will be cut for the well-off.
Considered as disadvantageous to couples, the austerity measure risks angering some on the Conservative right, for whom upholding marriage is one of their key priorities.
"What does it say about our commitment to marriage?", one anonymous right-winger told The Guardian newspaper.
© 2010 AFP