Britain's new coalition leaders seem to be finding common ground

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 13, 2010

LONDON -- The two men strolled side by side Wednesday through the blooming flower gardens behind No. 10 Downing Street, bearing no resemblance to the bitter rivals in last week's election.

Instead, Britain's new Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his unlikely deputy, Liberal Democrat Nicholas Clegg, finished each other's sentences, patted each other on the back and laughed at each other's jokes.

In their first joint public appearance since striking a landmark deal Tuesday to form a unity government, they insisted theirs is no marriage of convenience. Acting like old chums, they raised the curtain on a fratocracy they said would bridge the gap between right and left, conservative and liberal. Their message: Maybe we all really can get along.

On the first day of their government, they provided some basis for that hope, announcing an agreement that showed the two sides had managed to find extraordinary common ground in Britain's first peacetime coalition between conservatives and liberals. In fewer than five days after Thursday's vote yielded a majority for no single party, they radically rethought their priorities in order to rule.

The Conservatives abandoned tax breaks for the wealthy and agreed to give them to the poor. The Liberals backed away from dismantling Britain's nuclear deterrent and supported harsher laws on immigration.

To their delight, the two camps found they both dislike big banks -- they want to tax them, and maybe break them up -- and share a strong desire to protect civil liberties. And they agreed that avoiding a Greek-like debt crisis by cutting Britain's huge deficit -- they will start by slashing $9 billion in spending this year -- is priority No. 1.

In language that raised the eyebrows of even seasoned observers, the Oxford-educated Cameron, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II's, described the new alliance as fundamentally "progressive." Together, Cameron said, he and Clegg will usher in an era "where cooperation wins out over confrontation, where compromise, where give-and-take, where reasonable grown-up behavior, is not a sign of weakness, but a show of strength."

The British media quickly dubbed the event -- and the partners' five-year term, if they hold on -- "the Dave and Nick Show."

"It is a novel sight for Britain, after all the political bickering, to have two rivals standing outside No. 10 shaking hands in a grand partnership for the good of the nation," said Andrew Rawnsley, a political commentator for the Observer. "However bogus that rhetoric might become over time, at least initially, voters find the idea of these two working together in a different spirit a pretty attractive idea."

A sense of possibilities

Cameron and Clegg are centrists who share a certain chemistry: They are both upper-class, properly educated Brits in their early 40s. But elements within their parties are more extreme, and the coalition will be tested by the parties' respective bases as they try to agree on specific legislation.

Just in case, they are writing themselves an insurance policy: a law requiring a 55 percent vote to bring down the new government before May 2015.

Although fraught with risks, their union is just as filled with possibilities.

For Cameron, a self-proclaimed "modern" conservative who supports gay rights and efforts to curb climate change, the alliance gives him more scope to push his skeptical party closer to the center. Some analysts say he never wholly backed some elements of his party's platform, such as inheritance-tax breaks for the wealthiest British citizens. Now he can roll back some of those promises, which would have infuriated the public at large, while citing the need to compromise with the Liberal Democrats.

In addition, as Cameron prepares to narrow the deficit with the deepest, most painful spending cuts since World War II, Clegg and the left will share the blame.

Clegg's Liberal Democrats also have much to gain. Some voted for the party because it represented an alternative to the traditional dominance of the Conservatives and the Labor Party, which last week suffered its worst defeat in 80 years. But by securing five cabinet posts, Clegg has given the Liberal Democrats more real power than they have had in almost a century.

His own new role as deputy prime minister, although partly ceremonial, theoretically involves him in every major policy decision. In addition, the Conservatives have agreed to hold a referendum on broad electoral reform, which could help the Liberal Democrats win more seats in the future.

Surprising convergence

The coalition will also be aided, at least initially, by fractured opposition from Labor, now rudderless after the resignation of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and facing a leadership struggle that could see former foreign minister David Miliband running against his younger brother, Ed Miliband, Brown's climate-change chief.

Although it is still early, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have rolled out what many see as a strong, workable cabinet and policy priorities that address some of Britain's biggest problems, such as the budget deficit. The devil will be in the details, and a tug of war over where cuts will come is likely to strain the coalition.

But the agreement forged since the election -- which gave Conservatives the most seats but left it short of a majority, put the Labor party a distant second and the Liberal Democrats third -- has startled many by its breadth.

"I find it remarkable that they were able to reach these major compromises and strike such a detailed joint program in so short a period of time," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London think tank. "What's more, this is not the lowest common denominator, but the best of both platforms put together."

The parties have converged on other issues as well. On Wednesday, Cameron's new foreign minister, the conservative William Hague, echoed the Liberal Democrats in pledging "a solid but not slavish relationship" with the United States. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have agreed to set aside their hopes for deeper integration with the European Union for the duration of the coalition.

It is that sense of compromise, even optimism, that has caught so many in Britain by surprise.

"I ought to be cynical. I ought to be saying it's all going to end in tears, but I just sense something good and genuine in the air, and it just might work," Matthew Parris, a Times of London columnist and former Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC. "You almost have a sense of two men staging a coup against the British political system."

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