Wednesday, May 12, 2010


LONDON (AP) — Britain woke up to a new political era Wednesday with its first coalition government since World War II, an unlikely marriage between the reborn right-wing Conservative Party and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats.

With a handshake, smiles and waves, new Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed his new coalition partner, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, outside the black door of 10 Downing Street and set off on the business of running the country.

The alliance was necessary because no party won a majority of parliamentary seats in last week’s national vote. Britons struggling to make ends meet during a punishing recession have been enraged at politicians of all stripes after a damaging lawmakers’ expense scandal last year.

Once described as sandal-wearing hippie academics, Mr. Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have emerged from the political fringe to the top rung of government. The party is expected to gain five Cabinet seats and more than a dozen junior government roles in what will be one of the least experienced governments since Tony Blair’s Labor Party won a landslide victory in 1997.

“Of course, we must recognize that all coalitions are about compromise,” Mr. Cameron wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “This one is no different.”

Mr. Cameron said the coalition agreement commits the next government to a significantly accelerated reduction in the budget deficit, to cut 6 billion pounds sterling ($8.9 billion) of government waste and to stop an increase in the national insurance tax.

Mr. Cameron wrote that the agreement allows Conservatives to move forward on school and welfare reform and rejects Liberal Democrat pledges to get rid of nuclear submarines, offer amnesty to illegal immigrants or hand over any additional powers to the European Union.

The government immediately will begin to tackle Britain’s record 153 billion pound ($236 billion) deficit. It is still unclear whether the Liberal Democrats will back the Conservatives’ plan to begin immediate spending cuts — a punishing course of action that isn’t likely to win praise from the electorate.

Liberal Democrat Vince Cable received a key business brief, an appointment that may spark nervousness in the financial sector. An ex-economist for Royal Dutch Shell, Mr. Cable is a fierce critic of banking practices and has demanded action to spur lending.

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King gave a strong endorsement to the new government’s plans for attacking the deficit, calling it “the single most important problem facing the United Kingdom.”

“And the agreement that I have been informed about, that has been reached between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, is a very strong and powerful agreement to reduce that deficit and to take more action,” Mr. King said.

One of the first calls of congratulation to the new prime minister came from President Obama, an acknowledgment of Britain’s most important bilateral relationship. Mr. Obama invited Mr. Cameron to visit Washington this summer.

Both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg have acknowledged that Labor under Mr. Blair was tied too closely to Washington’s interests. Both men back the Afghanistan mission, but Mr. Cameron hopes to withdraw British troops within five years. Mr. Clegg has said he’s uneasy at a rising death toll. Leaner coffers also may mean less money to enter foreign-led military operations.

The new foreign secretary, William Hague, told the BBC that the new government wanted a “solid but not slavish relationship” with the United States and described the so-called special relationship between the two countries as being of “huge importance.”

“No doubt we will not agree on everything,” Mr. Hague said of the United States. “But they remain — in intelligence matters, in nuclear matters, in international diplomacy, in what we are doing in Afghanistan — the indispensable partner of this country.”

Mr. Hague is expected to speak by telephone later to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and to travel soon to the United States and Afghanistan.

Relations with European neighbors also could become problematic. Mr. Cameron’s party is deeply skeptical over cooperation in Europe and has withdrawn from an alliance with the parties of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Clegg, once a member of the European Parliament, long has been pro-European.

Mr. Cameron extended his first invitation for formal talks to Mr. Sarkozy, who will visit London on June 18. The date is highly symbolic for France as it is the day that Charles de Gaulle launched his appeal from London via the BBC for the French to resist the Germans during World War II.

Mr. Cameron also spoke Wednesday with two key new allies, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The new British chief has vowed to build a “new special relationship” with India, believing the country can become a major political and trade partner.

Labor, meanwhile, took steps to regroup, with the maneuvering under way for the job of party leader. David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, has emerged as a top candidate and has earned the backing of another early favorite, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

Harriet Harman, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s deputy, would become interim Labor leader until a formal leadership meeting takes place to select his permanent successor.

The 43-year-old Mr. Cameron became Britain’s youngest prime minister in almost 200 years — the last was Lord Liverpool at 42 — after cementing a coalition deal with the third-place Liberal Democrats. The agreement, reached over five sometimes tense days of negotiation, delivered Britain’s first coalition government since World War II.

Lawmaker George Osborne was named Treasury chief, the youngest chancellor of the exchequer for more than a century — and, critics say, one of the most inexperienced.

Liberal Democrat negotiator David Laws was appointed as chief secretary to the Treasury, a highly respected role as deputy to Mr. Osborne.

Lawmaker Liam Fox will serve as defense secretary, William Hague as foreign secretary, Kenneth Clarke as justice secretary and Theresa May as home secretary.

Other leading positions were being finalized, as were key policy decisions ahead of the presentation of the coalition’s first legislative program on May 25.

The coalition already has agreed on a five-year, fixed-term Parliament — the first time Britain has had the date of its next election decided in advance. Both sides have made compromises, and Mr. Cameron has promised Mr. Clegg a referendum on his key issue: reform of Britain’s electoral system aimed at creating a more proportional system.

Mr. Brown’s resignation Tuesday ends five days of uncertainty after last week’s general election left the country with no clear winner. It left Britain with its first so-called hung Parliament since 1974. Britain’s Conservatives won the most seats but fell short of a majority, forcing them to bid against the Labor Party for the loyalty of the Lib Dems.

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless, Danica Kirka and Slyvia Hui contributed to this report.

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