x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UK coalition totters but survives

Close on the heels of student rallies, Lib Dem ministers' harsh words about Conservative partners indicate that all is not well with the British coalition.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, right, with the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, at a joint news conference in London.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, right, with the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, at a joint news conference in London.

LONDON // The seven-month-old coalition government in Britain is going into the Christmas break creaking and tottering but not yet in danger of falling.

The past few weeks, and the last seven days in particular, have not been happy ones for the country's first post-war coalition government - a cobbling together of the 307 seats the Conservatives won in May's election and the 57 taken by the Liberal Democrats.

Such a marriage of convenience between the centre-right and the centre-left was never going to be bliss. But what had seemed a workable if loveless union turned distinctly acrimonious this week after journalists secretly taped Liberal Democrat ministers sounding off privately (or so they thought) about their Conservative partners.

And this comes hot on the heels of student demonstrations across the country in protest against the government's decision to triple university fees, plus a renewed threat of strikes by public sector workers facing massive job losses because of spending cuts.

A sure sign that all was not well in the coalition has come in the past 72 hours with both the prime minister, David Cameron, and his Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg, finding themselves having to fend off suggestions of a rift.

"Of course, coalitions have their difficulties and their tensions," Mr Cameron said on Wednesday. "I would say look at the bigger picture - this government is delivering in terms of the real problems the country faces."

When asked by reporters what he thought of the description of the coalition by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party's new leader, as "a sham", Mr Cameron replied: "I think he's wrong. I think just sniping from the sidelines is not constructive."

The prime minister went on to describe a coalition that was putting aside political differences to work in the national interest.

Mr Clegg tried singing from the same song sheet, although clearly uneasy that two of his Lib Dem ministers had been secretly recorded moaning about the government's decision to cut housing benefits and child allowances while raising university fees.

There were fresh revelations yesterday with four junior Lib Dem ministers voicing complaints about their Conservative colleagues, including one who suggested Mr Cameron was not to be trusted and another who accused the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, of being "out of touch".

Even those whinges, however, paled into insignificance with the gaffe made by Vince Cable, the business secretary and a crucial Lib Dem linchpin in the coalition, when he told undercover Daily Telegraph reporters that he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

The remark was particularly unwise as, next year, Mr Cable was due to rule - in a quasi-judicial and strictly independent way - on whether Mr Murdoch should be allowed to buy the 61 per cent of the satellite broadcaster, BSkyB, that he does not already own.

Mr Cameron was forced to swiftly switch the decision-making powers on the subject to another minister but, to the surprise of many, he kept Mr Cable in the cabinet, prompting Mr Miliband to say he was only doing so to keep the coalition together.

"I think now Vince and the government can move on and that is the end of it," insisted Mr Clegg, despite the fact that there were growing signs of unease within Conservative ranks.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said that Mr Cable would "almost certainly" have been sacked if he had been a Tory minister.

"I'm not happy, but nevertheless I accept that in a coalition we have to do things to keep our partners in the coalition content," he told the BBC.

"Equally, it's quite plain that Vince Cable is the second most important Liberal member of the coalition [the treasury secretary, David Laws, who resigned over a dubious expenses claim]. We have already lost one leading Liberal minister and the feeling was we cannot afford to lose another."

Christopher Chope, another senior Conservative MP who is secretary of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, accused Lib Dem ministers of undermining the government and said they should quit if they could not support its policies.

"What seems to be happening now is that Vince Cable and perhaps some other Liberal Democrat ministers want to be having it both ways," he told the BBC.

"They want to be able to support the government for the sake of keeping the Liberal Democrats in government and keeping their own ministerial cars, but then they want to be able to say to their supporters outside: 'Don't worry, I wasn't in support of that at all - I am rather against it'.

"You can't carry on like that as a minister because you are effectively undermining your own government."

Mr Clegg, however, insisted that people should not be surprised about ministers having differences of opinion in a coalition government.

"The most important thing is that we get on and work together in the coalition government to fix the mess that we have inherited from Labour. That is what people expect from us and that's exactly what we are doing," he added.

But with Labour now nosing ahead in the opinion polls for the first time in three years, both sides in the coalition know they must get their act together soon.

The year is ending badly for them. They must hope the New Year begins a lot better.