- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

LONDON | It was a shotgun wedding.

When none of Britian’s political parties won the 326 parliamentary seats needed for an outright majority in last May’s general elections, the Conservatives, who won the most votes, were compelled to wed an unlikely partner - the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third-biggest party - in order to form a government.

Nearly a year later, despite a malcontent electorate and regular drubbings in the press, the coalition is holding fast and forging ahead with an aggressive austerity agenda while the Labor Party watches from the sidelines.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat marriage has been kept intact by the parties’ mutual commitment to reducing the country’s massive deficit, lawmakers from both parties say.

“The coalition came together for one purpose: to try to get this country out of its economic difficulties,” said Angie Bray, a Conservative member of parliament who represents part of West London.

By Election Day in May 2010, Britain’s deficit had hit a record high of $270 billion - about 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Reducing the deficit and getting the economy back on track are top priorities for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

“Of course, there have been robust discussions around the Cabinet table,” said Cabinet Minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, chairwoman of the Conservative Party. “But, fundamentally, we are two parties working together in the national interest.”

John Thurso, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker from Scotland, said there are two aspects to the coalition’s success: the relationship between the two parties and how they deal with nation’s problems.

The coalition’s austerity plan - which includes deep cuts for welfare, health care and education, among other services - has irked voters.

A Sunday Times survey this month found that 57 percent of the public disapprove of the government’s record, while just 27 percent approve. Labor Party leader Ed Miliband scored higher job approval ratings than either Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party or Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.

“I don’t think much of the coalition government because of all the cutbacks,” said Kim Wallace, 33, of West Kensington, a longtime Labor supporter who voted Conservative in the last election. “Families are being penalized by the cuts. I know a lot of people who work in children’s centers who have lost their jobs.”

Tony Lloyd, a Labor lawmaker for Manchester Central, said the coalition is hugely unpopular in his community.

“Manchester has done quite badly on the various cuts that have come through, so there is resentment that this is a very upper-middle-class government,” he said, adding that cuts to local governments and law enforcement are particularly worrisome for his constituents.

But the pace and depth of the cuts is necessary, said Brooks Newmark, a Conservative lawmaker for Braintree. “In business, if you take over a company hemorrhaging money, you don’t say ‘I will deal with this over five years,’ ” he said. “You address the problem up front and live within your means.”

Mr. Newmark called the Labor Party, which had been in power for 13 years before last year’s election, “deficit deniers who are like alcoholics who deny they have an alcohol problem.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats have borne the brunt of the abuse in the press.

Mr. Clegg’s supporters were enraged when he broke his party’s promise to scrap university tuition fees and agreed with the Conservatives to let them increase to nearly $15,000 a year.

Students took to the streets in angry protest. Columnists and comedians relentlessly have mocked Mr. Clegg, calling him spineless.

“We are not being considered when they make decisions,” said Bavneeta Rai, 19, of West Middlesex, a student at Brunel University. “They need to understand that we are the future, and if we don’t have an education, it’s their future that is being damaged.”

Lord David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, says the reversal on tuition fees was a mistake that has cost his party the trust of constituents. “I don’t think it was a mistake to go into coalition, but a mistake to rush it,” he said.

But compromises are the stuff of which coalitions are made, said Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative lawmaker for Greater London. “Coalitions are always going to be difficult and particularly in countries not used to them.”

What’s more, Ms. Bray noted that Liberal Democrats never before have been part of a government and are only just beginning to come to grips with the tough decisions necessary when one is actually in power.

If the economy does turn around, said Ms. Bray, then the Liberal Democrats will be able to say, “Look, we did something very good. We were part of government and saved the economy.”

Still, Liberal Democrats were defeated embarrassingly in a March 3 parliamentary by-election in Barnsley, in which they placed sixth out of six parties. Winner Dan Jarvis, of the Labor Party, said the results sent a message about the coalition’s popularity.

Pressure on the Liberal Democrats from their grassroots supporters could increase if, as expected, the party doesn’t do well in the May 5 nationwide local council elections.

Several polls on UKpollingreport.com show Labor gaining support across the country, largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, though Conservatives also are predicted to lose seats.

Hand-wringing aside, Liberal Democrats have succeeded in delivering many of the promises in their manifesto, Mr. Thurso said. The coalition has agreed to eliminate taxes for those earning less than $16,000 a year. It has protected international aid, and it has pushed through much of its civil liberties agenda.

Conservatives, as well, have muscled through much of their agenda, including dramatic budget cuts and reforms to welfare and the National Health Service.

Despite the gains, it is the economy that ultimately will determine the coalition’s success.

But even if all goes terribly right in the next five years, Mr. Lloyd said, it’s the Conservatives who likely will get the credit while the Liberal Democrats end up “the abandoned wife cursing across the erstwhile marital home.”