British business minister clings on after Murdoch comments

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British business minister Vince Cable was clinging on to his job on Wednesday after unguarded remarks that he had "declared war" on media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Cable's comments to two undercover reporters from The Daily Telegraph newspaper led to him being stripped of some of his ministerial powers, but it appeared the Liberal Democrat had been spared the sack for the sake of the coalition government.

But the coupling of the Conservatives and their junior Liberal Democrat partners came under further pressure when other Lib Dem ministers were revealed to have expressed concerns over coalition policies.

After being caught claiming he could break the coalition apart, Cable's woes deepened after the BBC leaked comments in which he told the female reporters he was determined to block a bid by Murdoch's News Corporation to take full control of British pay TV giant BSkyB.

After the comments came to light Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron told Cable he would no longer have a say in overseeing media policy, handing the job of scrutinising News Corporation's bid to the culture minister instead.

But as a humiliated Cable remained in office, more junior ministers from his party criticised the coalition government's contentious changes to welfare payments, according to recordings also made by the Telegraph.

Scotland minister Michael Moore described the decision to scrap child benefit payments for higher rate taxpayers as "not right" and said the Conservatives had imposed it "out of the blue".

Ed Davey, a junior business minister, said he was "gobsmacked" by the policy, introduced as part of a raft of cuts to ease Britain's massive budget deficit.

Their comments were recorded in the same 'sting' operation that caught out Cable, a former chief economist for oil giant Shell and one of the Liberal Democrats' few widely known figures.

Since the coalition came to power following May's inconclusive general election, Cable has been viewed as one of its most unhappy members because of the compromises his centre-left party has had to make.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, attempted to play down reports of rifts within the government.

Clegg said Cable's comments had been "very unfortunate" but insisted that he had been dealt with.

"I think now Vince and the government can move on and that is the end of it," he told journalists outside his London home.

Clegg also tried to brush off the the comments by the junior ministers, saying they were part and parcel of coalition politics.

"I don't think we should be surprised about the reports of what other ministers have said -- that there are differences of opinion in a coalition, as there are indeed in all governments," Clegg said.

Some observers said Cable's comments about the BSkyB deal made it more likely it would now get the go-ahead from British regulators after it was given the green light by the European Union on Tuesday.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who will take over the brief of overseeing scrutiny of the deal, has in the past expressed broad support for the idea.

A News Corporation spokeswoman said it was "shocked and dismayed" by Cable's remarks, adding: "They raise serious questions about fairness and due process."

Telegraph Media Group, the owner of the newspaper which made the recordings of Cable, is one of several media organisations which have opposed the BSkyB deal arguing that it would create a cross-media giant of newspapers and TV.

While some observers said Cable's standing had been diminished, an editorial in The Guardian newspaper headlined "From Saint Vince to Mr Bean" said Cable was too important to the government for Cameron to sacrifice.

Although Cable "has damaged his own standing, professional and political", it said, he was "one of precious few ministerial Liberal Democrats who enjoy a standing in the country that is independent of their embattled party boss (Clegg)".

© 2010 AFP

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