British coalition tries to ease tensions after referendum

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Britain's year-old coalition vowed Saturday to ride out fresh tensions after the Liberal Democrats suffered an electoral meltdown and a minister attacked their "ruthless" Conservative allies.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Lib Dems suffered a double blow when Britons overwhelmingly rejected a change to the voting system in a referendum this week, while also hammering the party in local elections.

Business Secretary Vince Cable, a senior Liberal Democrat, described Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives as "ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal" and said their alliance would now be more "businesslike".

"But that doesn't mean to say we can't work with them. I think they have always been that way, but you have to be businesslike and professional and you have to work with people who aren't your natural bedfellows," he told the BBC.

Cable warned however that the centrist Lib Dems would not accept any policies that went beyond the coalition agreement they made with the centre-right Conservatives after general elections in May 2010.

Cameron was accused of betrayal after the campaign against changing to the Alternative Vote (AV) system -- which is favoured by the Lib Dems -- savaged Clegg for "broken promises".

The attacks came even though Clegg broke those election pledges to support Conservative-led austerity measures to tackle Britain's record deficit, which it blames on the previous Labour government.

Clegg described the results as a "bitter blow", as commentators predicted that the referendum had ended all hope for a generation of changing the way Britain elects its lawmakers.

The referendum was held as a condition of the Lib Dems joining the coalition. AV would have allowed voters to rank their preferences, as opposed to the current first past the post system.

"But the answer is clear and the wider job of the government and the Liberal Democrats in government will continue -- to repair the economy, to restore a sense of prosperity and jobs and optimism to the country," he said.

Final results from Thursday's referendum showed a total of 67.9 percent of voters -- 13,013,123 -- had rejected a move to AV, while just 32.1 percent supported the idea. Turnout was 42 percent.

The Lib Dems also had their worst results in local council elections for a quarter of a century.

The Tories, however, emerged largely unscathed in the local elections while Cameron had also backed the campaign against voting reform.

Cameron said the campaign had been "difficult" for the government.

"I believe that what the British people want us to do now is to provide a good, strong, decisive government in the long-term national interest of this country, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together," he said.

The elections were also good news for the Scottish National Party, which won the first overall majority in the devolved Edinburgh parliament since it was formed in 1999, paving the way for a referendum on independence.

First Minister Alex Salmond pledged to hold a referendum on breaking the 300-year-old bond with the United Kingdom within the next four years.

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott, resigned on Saturday after the "disastrous" result.

Commentators said the elections had been disastrous for the fresh-faced Clegg but differed on what the results meant for the future of the coalition.

The main question appears to be whether a strengthened Cameron will try to prop up Clegg to keep the coalition afloat, for example by offering concessions on issues such as health reform, or to push for elections and a full majority.

"It is hard not to see Cameron as the winner of Thursday's election," Tony Travers, a political expert at the London School of Economics, wrote in the Guardian.

© 2011 AFP

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