Conservative Cameron becomes Britain premier with third-party allies
David Cameron became Britain’s new prime minister Tuesday as his Conservatives ended 13 years of Labor rule and entered into a surprising alliance with a smaller party that held the keys to his ascent.
After five days of backroom negotiations that riveted Britain, the change of government — when it came — occurred with lightning speed. Outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seeing his own hopes for a coalition deal dashed, made a dignified departure from the official residence at 10 Downing St. to submit his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
A little more than an hour later, Cameron was entering the residence as prime minister, ushering in an audacious government consisting of two parties with little in common.
To gain power, Cameron, 43, played a savvy hand that shaved the edges off some Conservative policies, enabling the third-party Liberal Democrats to join him in government. But in the end it was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, also 43, who had to make the call about which party to prop up. His decision to go with the Conservatives realigns British politics to the right of center, as well as making him deputy prime minister in the new government.
But it remains to be seen whether the arrangement proves workable. Britain has not been governed by a coalition since World War II, and the experiment comes as the country grapples with a runaway budget deficit, an economy barely out of recession and a heavy commitment to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Cameron, who campaigned on a platform of smaller government, said a power-sharing deal was the best solution after an election last week that left his Tories with the most seats in Parliament but not a majority.
“This is going to be hard and difficult work. A coalition will throw up all sorts of challenges,” Cameron told the British media camped outside Downing Street. “But I believe together we can provide that strong and stable government that our country needs, based on those values [of] rebuilding family, rebuilding community — above all, rebuilding responsibility in our country.”
Then Cameron and his wife, Samantha, crossed through the heavy black door of their new official residence, retracing the same steps, but in reverse, that Gordon Brown and his wife had taken less than two hours before.
Brown, 59, had announced earlier that he was resigning as prime minister, a post he held for three years but that became increasingly untenable after he led Labor to a bruising second-place finish at the ballot box Thursday.
“It was a privilege to serve, and yes, I love the job, not for its prestige, its titles and its ceremony, which I do not love at all,” Brown said. “No, I love the job for its potential to make this country I love fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just, truly a greater Britain….
“I have always strived to serve, to do my best in the interest of Britain, its values and its people.”
The Scotsman’s voice cracked as he thanked his wife, Sarah, and their two young sons, a poignant moment for a man almost invariably described as dour, stiff and brusque. He said his resignation as Labor Party leader would take immediate effect, touching off instant speculation as to who would succeed him.
Shortly after being confirmed as prime minister, Cameron received a congratulatory call from President Obama. It remains to be seen how much the “special relationship” between Washington and London will be affected by the presence of the Liberal Democrats, a party more lukewarm toward the U.S.
But domestic problems are piled high on Cameron’s plate, chief among them a galloping budget deficit of about 12%, nearly the same level as that of Greece, the country that triggered a debt crisis rippling across Europe.
The Conservatives promise to present an emergency budget within 50 days incorporating $9 billion in spending cuts, although some economists warn that more will be needed to rein in the deficit and assure investors. Heading the effort will be new Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, a Cameron confidant since the two men were undergraduates at Oxford.
The Liberal Democrats advocate a more cautious approach to budget cuts and some higher taxes — anathema to the Tories. The new junior partner in government also takes a softer line on the vexed issue of immigration and on closer ties with the rest of Europe.
But the deal negotiated by the two parties has undoubtedly forced compromises, not all of which were immediately clear Tuesday night.
Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, who won only 57 seats in the 650-member lower house of Parliament, now get their first taste of government after years of watching the Tories and Labor take turns running the country. Besides Clegg, four senior party figures are expected to receive Cabinet posts.
The Liberal Democrats also wrested a Tory offer, put forward Monday, to move on electoral reform, an issue practically written into the third party’s DNA. The Liberal Democrats want to overhaul Britain’s voting system so that it produces a Parliament more reflective of the popular vote; in Thursday’s poll, the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote nationally but less than 9% of the seats in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives oppose any major changes to the system, but offered a referendum on some of the changes advocated by the Liberal Democrats.
In return, Clegg has reportedly promised not to block the $9 billion in budget cuts.
He also reportedly agreed that his party would not bring down the government in a confidence vote for five years — the maximum term of government permitted — which would allow the Conservatives to rule without looking nervously over their shoulder on every important piece of legislation.
But whether the coalition can prove as durable as its proponents say it will remains to be seen. The last time a party tried to govern without a full majority in Parliament, albeit not in a formal coalition, it failed, in 1974, after just a few months.
Clegg acknowledged that many in his party, especially those with an instinctive aversion to the Tories, are skeptical of their shotgun marriage.
“I wouldn’t have entered into this agreement unless I was genuinely convinced that it offers a unique opportunity to deliver the kind of changes that you and I believe in,” he told supporters early Wednesday, after party representatives approved the coalition deal.
The power-sharing accord capped more than four extraordinary days of negotiating and maneuvering since last week’s balloting forced a “hung Parliament.”
Immediately after the election, Clegg opened talks with the Tories, who he said deserved the first shot at forming a government.
But those negotiations were thrown for a loop when Brown made a last-ditch bid Monday to keep the Conservatives out of power by announcing that he would step down by fall if Labor and the Liberal Democrats joined in a “progressive” alliance. Clegg, who had repeatedly called on Brown to go, then initiated discussions with Labor, to the Tories’ dismay and anger.
Britain’s right-wing, go-for-the-jugular tabloids, which had blasted Brown for not vacating Downing Street, suddenly began pummeling him for pledging to do just that.
“A squalid day for democracy,” the Daily Mail roared on its front page, referring to Brown’s perfectly constitutional dealings with the Liberal Democrats. Even the more temperate Daily Telegraph called it “A Very Labor Coup.”
The “coup” did not happen. Talks between Labor and the Liberal Democrats, which in many ways would seem natural allies, apparently went nowhere Tuesday, as Cameron warned the Liberal Democrats that it was decision time.
Labor negotiator Ed Balls blamed the Liberal Democrats for the breakdown of negotiations.
“The Liberal Democrats made it clear during the course of the day that they were choosing the Conservatives and not Labor,” Balls told the BBC, adding that there were also policy differences, particularly over the extent of budget cuts.
That may be sugar-coating the internal backlash against the deal from some Labor members. And a Liberal Democrat statement accused Labor of not negotiating in good faith.
By midafternoon Tuesday, Brown knew a “Lib-Lab” pact was impossible and that the end to his tenure as prime minister was near.
It was a bitter end to a career that saw him wait in the wings for a decade as No. 2 to his predecessor, the charismatic Blair, with whom Brown had helped make over their party as the centrist New Labor.
Brown never received the electoral mandate he craved and failed to stem a tide of exhaustion with his party and with him as premier.
After his final audience with the queen at Buckingham Palace, during which he tendered his resignation, Brown spoke to the party faithful in tones of regret tinged almost with tragedy.
“We know more certainly now than ever before that there is a strong progressive majority in Britain. I wish more than I can possibly say that I could’ve mobilized that majority to carry the election, but I could not,” he said. “I have to accept, and indeed assert, personal responsibility.
“The fault is mine, and I will carry that alone.”