British coalition marks energetic 100 days but trouble ahead

17th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's coalition government marks its first 100 days in office on Wednesday having set a frenetic pace of change, but a big challenge awaits as it pushes through deep spending cuts.

When Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron took office in May at the head of a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats, many observers predicted it would be hamstrung by internal battles and could soon collapse.

In fact, Cameron's team has hit the ground running, unveiling swift and swingeing spending cuts to tackle Britain's record deficit and outlining radical policies to reform health, education, welfare and the police.

The coalition also set out a clear timetable for British troops to leave Afghanistan by 2015.

"We have had a much more radical first 100 days than conventional wisdom predicted," Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg wrote in Sunday's Observer newspaper.

But he admitted: "Reducing public spending has already led to some controversial decisions, and with the autumn spending review approaching, we are on the brink of more."

Voters appear to be hardening their attitude to the coalition even before it unveils the bulk of the spending cuts.

A recent Harris poll for the Daily Mail found 57 percent of people dubbed the government's performance "disappointing" and Peter Kellner, president of polling company YouGov, declared last month that the "honeymoon is over".

He cited public unease over the austerity drive which will see some ministry budgets slashed by 25 percent in a public spending review in October.

Trade unions have already signalled their opposition to the cuts, planning a day of protests to coincide with the spending review, and a public backlash is expected as details emerge of where the axe will fall.

"David Cameron's Hundred Days have been a lot better than many of us feared. But the real test lies ahead," said the right-wing Daily Mail on Saturday, adding that tackling the deficit will require "extraordinary guts and resolve".

The coalition between the centre-right Conservatives and the centrist Lib Dems was for many an unexpected outcome of May's general election, when the Tories won the most seats in parliament but not enough to govern alone.

Some commentators forecast a new election within months, while others said Britain's first coalition government since World War II would struggle to agree -- particularly on the key issue of how to tackle the nation's finances.

But Cameron and Clegg clearly get on well -- sparking comparisons among some Tories with "Brokeback Mountain", the film about two gay cowboys -- and ministers from both parties are reportedly working closely together.

Cameron appears at ease in the top job, although a number of gaffes have marred his entry onto the world stage, not least his accusation during a trip to India that Pakistan is promoting "the export of terror".

His deputy, Clegg, has also made mistakes, including declaring in the House of Commons that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was "illegal" -- something he later stressed was his personal view, not the government's.

But the coalition's big challenge is restoring growth after a record recession, and after the Lib Dems dropped their opposition to swift spending cuts, it gambled on a major austerity drive being the best way to do this.

"As with all gambles, it could go wrong. The biggest danger is that fiscal tightening throttles the recovery," the business-friendly Economist magazine said in an editorial this week.

The Harris poll found 56 percent of voters accepted the need for cuts to reduce the deficit, and the coalition's plans -- outlined in an emergency budget in June -- have also received a thumbs-up from the European Union.

But the scale of the cuts has sparked concern among some Lib Dem lawmakers, a view echoed in the left-wing New Statesman magazine, which warned of the plans' "potentially appalling economic and social consequences".

The magazine said Cameron had gone further and faster in his cuts than former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The concerns appear to be reflected in the electorate -- support for the Lib Dems has fallen from 23 percent at the election to about 12 or 13 percent, suggesting they will be the biggest losers if the coalition fails.

© 2010 AFP

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