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Britain’s coalition leaders hail new era of politics

Britain watched in fascination Wednesday as perhaps the most momentous marriage since Charles and Diana unfolded before their eyes, a political union that will determine this country’s direction for the next few years.

It wasn’t a match either suitor had expected. But David Cameron, who became prime minister Tuesday, and Nick Clegg, his deputy, extolled their alliance as a new way of doing politics and set about putting together a team to run the nation.

The government that began to take shape is Britain’s first attempt at coalition rule in 65 years, combining Cameron’s dominant Conservatives and Clegg’s smaller center-left party, the Liberal Democrats. Their partnership brings to an end the Labor Party’s 13-year hold on power.

Never mind that Cameron, when once asked what his favorite political joke was, responded, “Nick Clegg.” Or that Clegg recently described his new political bedfellow as a man of “breathtaking arrogance.”

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Their inaugural news conference Wednesday afternoon was more of a love-in. The two men — both 43, privately educated, of similar height and build, both novices in government — said their common purpose was to make Britain a freer, fairer, more responsible country.

“We are announcing a new politics, a new politics where the national interest is more important than the party interest, where cooperation wins out over confrontation,” Cameron said in the garden of his new residence, 10 Downing St. “It can be a historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.”

The contours of that shift were evident in the composition of Cameron’s Cabinet. Although the plum posts went to his fellow Tories, the Cabinet also includes five Liberal Democrats, including Clegg.

Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne will work with Vince Cable, the new business secretary, a Liberal Democrat who is one of the country’s most admired politicians because of his grasp of economics and his straight talk.

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Among the coalition’s first orders of business is a Tory pledge to slash $9 billion from the budget this year. The Liberal Democrats agreed to back that plan, despite having campaigned for a go-slow approach.

The “Lib Dems” also swallowed their support for an amnesty for some illegal immigrants, more integration with the rest of Europe and the elimination of Britain’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent.

But some analysts said the small party that landed just 57 seats in the 650-member House of Commons had gained more than they lost.

In concessions that have angered some on the Conservative right, Cameron agreed to make tax changes to help low-income people, keep the inheritance tax and, most crucially, hold a referendum on overhauling Britain’s voting system, which could cost the Conservatives seats in Parliament.

Skeptics are already predicting that this marriage will dissolve long before the end of the five years Cameron and Clegg say they will stick together. Between them, they have only 14 years of experience in Parliament and zero in government. (By contrast, Gordon Brown, the Labor prime minister who resigned Tuesday, racked up 27 years in Parliament, 13 of those in government.)

On the grass-roots level, Tory and Liberal Democrat activists often loathe each other. Unhappy members have already taken to grumbling about the new “Con-Dem Nation.”

And the machinery of government, used to single-party rule, will no doubt creak for a while. For instance, how much information will the parties share with each other?

But practical problems were eclipsed Wednesday by a sense of novelty. Even habitually cynical pundits kept repeating words like “remarkable” and “unprecedented.”

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“I’m happier to have the Tories in with a moderating Liberal element rather than Tories on their own,” said Henrietta Otley, 41, a student midwife in the city of Bath, who voted Liberal Democrat. “It’s time we had a challenge to our old system.”

The choreography of coalition began with a much-photographed handshake between Cameron and Clegg outside 10 Downing St.

At their news conference about five hours later, they were all smiles, virtually indistinguishable (one commentator said) but for the colors of their ties: blue for Conservative, yellow for the Liberal Democrats.

They arrived and left side by side. They called each other “David” and “Nick.” They laughed at each other’s jokes. The chemistry prevailed even when a journalist asked Cameron about having once referred to Clegg as a joke.

“Did you say that?” Clegg asked his new partner.

“I’m afraid I did,” Cameron replied with a grimace.

“I’m off,” Clegg declared, walking away from his podium.

“Come back!” Cameron said.

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He did.

henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.


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