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.

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 socially exclusive dining club 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.

Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy Clegg are also both 43 and have glamorous wives and young families who have been thrust into the media spotlight by their success.

But when it comes to policy, the two men have some big differences. Clegg even 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 is on Britain's role in the European Union.

Cameron was strongly opposed to the EU's Lisbon Treaty and wants to change the law so Britain cannot join the euro without a referendum.

His party has a strong eurosceptic tradition and has broken away from the main centre-right Conservative grouping in the European Parliament to form an anti-federalist alliance with fringe parties.

Clegg, a former European lawmaker who speaks five languages and is married to a Spaniard, accused Cameron of working in Europe with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes" in the pre-election TV debates.

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

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

They also disagreed sharply about immigration, and Britain's nuclear deterrent -- which the Lib Dems want to scrap, the Tories want to keep and their coalition government has agreed to examine the cost of.

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 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 Lib Dem 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 made to seal the deal.

"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.

And influential right-wing group Conservative Way Forward urged the party to end talks with the Lib Dems and rule in a minority government.

Now that a deal has been struck, though, both sides seem determined to put past differences aside and make the best of the situation. Commentators say they have little choice but to do so.

"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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