New British coalition holds first cabinet meeting

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Britain's new premier David Cameron chaired his first cabinet meeting Thursday, bringing together former rivals from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in a historic coalition.

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

The priority of the new government, Britain's first coalition since World War II, is tackling the nation's record deficit and securing recovery from a long and deep recession, with an emergency budget due within 50 days.

"We are announcing a new politics, a new politics where the national interest is more important than the party interest," Cameron said in an open-air press conference in the Downing Street garden with Clegg Wednesday.

"It can be a historic and seismic shift in our political leadership," the 43-year-old said.

For the Tories, Cameron's close ally George Osborne takes up the key finance post as Chancellor of Exchequer, former party leader William Hague is the new foreign secretary and Liam Fox is defence secretary.

On the Lib Dem side, as well as Clegg other key Lib Dem ministers include Vince Cable as business secretary and Chris Huhne as energy and climate change secretary, while more are expected to be named in junior posts Thursday.

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

Cameron's Tories won the most seats but not the governing 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.

A seven-page coalition accord released Wednesday said cutting the deficit was "the most urgent issue" Britain faces, with about six billion pounds (seven billion euros, nine billion dollars) of savings to be made this year.

Bank of England governor Mervyn King welcomed the plan to cut the debt, which stands at 163.4 billion pounds. Britain only emerged from recession at the end of last year.

The coalition accord also confirmed Britain will not join the eurozone in this parliamentary term, which has been fixed at five years, and 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.

New Foreign Secretary Hague insisted the coalition deal, which gives the new government enough seats in parliament to push through its legislative agenda, would stand the test of time.

"It will be a strong government," he said.

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

"The chemistry between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg... may wear thin as the administration is forced to make hard and unpopular choices," said the Financial Times.

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

US President Barack Obama called Cameron within minutes of his appointment, inviting him to visit in July, and described the British premier Wednesday as a "smart, dedicated (and) effective" leader.

Hague will travel to Washington on Friday for talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both sides said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also talked to Cameron, with Singh inviting him for an "early" visit to Delhi.

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.

David Miliband, the former foreign secretary and frontrunner to succeed Brown, began campaigning around the country Thursday after declaring himself a candidate Wednesday, and others are likely to join him within the coming days.

© 2010 AFP

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