New British coalition holds 'constructive' first cabinet

13th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

New British Prime Minister David Cameron chaired his first cabinet meeting Thursday, gathering former rivals in a historic coalition aiming to defy warnings that it is too divided to last.

Deputy premier Nick Clegg and four other Liberal Democrat ministers gathered with their new Conservative colleagues in Downing Street, in the first test of whether their promise of a "new politics" in Britain can work in practice.

"It was a really constructive cabinet meeting. We talked about the economy and about the situation in Afghanistan, and we are working incredibly well as a team," said new Finance Minister George Osborne afterwards.

Osborne has the job of overseeing efforts to cut back the deficit and secure economic recovery after the recession -- a task that the new government, Britain's first coalition since World War II, has made a priority.

An emergency budget is due within 50 days and will set out plans to make six billion pounds (seven billion euros, nine billion dollars) of savings this year, which Bank of England governor Mervyn King has welcomed.

One of the first acts of the new cabinet was to agree a five percent pay cut for all ministers, a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

Cameron and his deputy "emphasised their commitment to work together and highlighted the strong shared agenda" at the meeting, she added.

The two party leaders stood side-by-side to present their vision for the future at a press conference Wednesday, where Cameron proclaimed a "historic and seismic shift" in British politics.

"We are announcing a new politics, a new politics where the national interest is more important than the party interest," the 43-year-old said.

Alongside Osborne, a close ally of Cameron, the new Tory ministers include former party leader William Hague as foreign secretary and Liam Fox as defence secretary.

On the Lib Dem side, Vince Cable is business secretary and Chris Huhne is energy and climate change secretary.

The two parties will have to learn to work together after years of being on opposing sides and after an often bitter campaign for the May 6 elections, which resulted in Britain's first hung parliament since 1974.

The Conservatives won the most seats but not the majority needed to oust Gordon Brown's Labour government, and spent five days in talks with the third-placed Lib Dems before they agreed a power-sharing deal.

Cameron was asked to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II late Tuesday after Brown resigned.

Members of the new cabinet have been publicly upbeat about their chances of surviving until to the next election in 2015, although Huhne admitted to having made "unpleasant" compromises.

"There are a whole series of compromises which have been struck in this agreement which I think are obviously unpleasant for each of the parties," the new energy secretary told BBC radio Thursday.

"But what we have in exchange is, I think, a real positive chance to reshape British politics and to make sure that the recovery keeps under way."

A seven-page coalition accord said cutting the 163.4-billion-pound deficit was "the most urgent issue" Britain faced and also stressed the need for banking reform to avoid a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

London's stock market and the pound recovered after a jittery few days ended with Tuesday's deal, and the FTSE 100 index opened Thursday slightly up.

Newspapers welcomed the "love-in" between Cameron and Clegg, although they warned the tough decisions ahead could challenge their partnership.

Foreign Secretary Hague said the conflict in Afghanistan -- where Britain has around 10,000 troops -- would be his "most urgent priority", and the war dominated the first meeting of a new National Security Council late Wednesday.

His first trip will be to Washington on Friday for talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. US President Barack Obama has praised Cameron as a "smart, dedicated, effective" leader and invited him to visit in July.

While the new government got down to work, the Labour party, now in opposition for the first time since 1997, began the search for a new leader with former foreign secretary David Miliband leading the race so far.

© 2010 AFP

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