Trouble ahead as Britain's 'Brokeback coalition' takes break

28th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's new coalition government heads into its summer holiday this week after a tough few days which suggest trouble ahead as public spending cuts start to bite in the coming months, commentators say.

While Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives and Nick Clegg, his Liberal Democrat deputy, have got on well since teaming up in a surprise move after May's election, discontent from within their parties has started to stir.

One senior Conservative, David Davis, was reportedly overheard last week describing the alliance as the "Brokeback coalition" -- a reference to the movie "Brokeback Mountain", about a love affair between two male cowboys.

This was the latest sign that some rank-and-file lawmakers are not as keen on the alliance as their colleagues who have been made ministers.

And with the full impact of cuts still to be felt, the situation is likely to get worse, experts say.

Dr Jane Green, a politics lecturer at Manchester University, compared the coalition -- Britain's first since World War II -- to "a swan that looks like it's gliding along effortlessly but it's paddling furiously underneath."

"Compared to what we might have expected, it seems to be going surprisingly well," Green told AFP. "That doesn't disguise the fact that there's a lot of disquiet beneath the surface and there are a lot of tests to come".

Looming flashpoints include a public spending review in October likely to herald eventual public sector cuts of up to 25 percent in many departments, following June's already painful austerity budget.

There is also an electoral reform referendum scheduled for May 2011 when the Tories and Lib Dems will campaign on opposite sides, plus crucial local and devolved administration elections on the same day.

In a fresh sign of discontent, over 40 Conservative lawmakers this week signed a motion protesting at the date of the referendum, saying that holding it on the same day as other elections could "artificially inflate" turnout.

With parliament's six week summer recess starting Tuesday, opinion polls indicate steady backing for the Conservatives at around 40 percent -- but falling support for the Lib Dems, who are in government for the first time.

Their average recent opinion poll support rating is just 14 percent, according to the UK Polling Report. That compares with a 23 percent vote share in May's general election, and this could unsettle the party.

A BBC survey this week found that four out of 10 Lib Dem voters would not have backed the centrist party in the election if they had known it would then team up with its historic rivals, the centre-right Tories.

Clegg has made a couple of blunders in recent days which suggest he may be feeling the pressure, including describing the Iraq war as "illegal" while standing in for Cameron at last week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Many commentators feel he has been short-changed by the coalition, failing to secure many key concessions from the Tories -- who have extensive experience of government and a bigger party machine -- beyond the electoral reform referendum, thus creating discontent in his party.

Clegg now faces a tough job to turn around the Lib Dem's mood, and the party's fortunes, at its conference in September.

"You're talking about a situation where you've got herbivores negotiating with carnivores, with predictable results," Dr Tim Bale, senior lecturer in politics at Sussex University told AFP.

"Fundamentally, this probably wasn't necessarily a great idea in the first place and it's very difficult to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. There are some fundamental mismatches between the two parties".

The Tories also face problems after the recess as the pain of the cuts start to be felt at the end of this year and into 2011.

"The coalition may be able to relax this August but at some stage things are going to get nasty," an editorial in this week's Sunday Times said.

Green said she thought that by this time next year, the coalition would be looking "extremely vulnerable", under the pressure of the cuts and falling support.

Cameron and Clegg are likely to be "playing a long game" and hoping the economy will pick up before the next general election due in 2015, she added.

"Although the cuts will be difficult, the economic recovery that's been promised will turn out to be true -- I think that's their only hope really," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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