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U.K.'s Coalition Government: A Happy Marriage? (And Can It Last?)

5 years ago
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The United Kingdom has a coalition government for the first time in 70 years. But will this marriage of convenience last?

The historic British elections, which -- after five days of intense wrangling -- finally yielded a new coalition government under the leadership of David Cameron on Tuesday night, has already unleashed a torrent of analysis and commentary. Some of it has been hopeful, some of it cautious, and some of it downright negative.

But to my mind, by far the most trenchant commentary came Wednesday morning on the BBC from a former Labour Party adviser, who likened the whole thing to a marriage: We're at the doorway, throwing confetti at the couple, but our excitement may rapidly give way to misgivings.

It's an apt metaphor for the political project that the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties are about to undertake. You have, in the respective bride and groom, an initial sign of good faith and willingness to compromise, which is, of course, what marriage is all about. The two have already made a number of impressive agreements that would seem to indicate a true partnership.

In terms of personnel, the Lib Dems are to get five seats in the new Cabinet and a reported 20 ministerial jobs. In addition to the office of prime minister, the Conservatives will control the foreign, finance, justice, education, health and home office ministries. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will become deputy prime minister and his party will take control of the business, energy and climate change ministries, as well as the offices of the chief secretary to the Treasury and the Scottish secretary. All in all, nearly half of all the 57 Lib Dem members of Parliament (MPs) that were elected last Thursday will be in the new government.

In policy terms, there's also been a substantial degree of compromise. The Liberal Democrats have agreed to back the Tories' plan for £6 billion (about $9 billion) in public spending cuts this year and to support the scrapping of part of next year's 1 percent National Insurance (Social Security) tax rise. They have also agreed that no further powers should be ceded to the European Union without a referendum and will support a cap on non-EU immigration.

The Conservatives, for their part, have agreed to spend more money to cut class sizes for disadvantaged pupils. They have also agreed to Lib Dem plans to raise the point at which people start paying tax to £10,000 (nearly $15,000) over time, and to put off their own plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold. Finally -- and most crucially to the success of this agreement -- the Tories have agreed to hold a referendum on the voting system and the introduction of fixed-term (five-year) Parliaments, both of which they previously opposed.

As with many marriages, however, people are wondering how long this one will last. Already, skeptics abound. A political columnist at the Daily Telegraph gives the whole thing a year. In his view, "the scope of dissent that could bring down this government is unlimited."

On the Liberal side, the hard-core activists will be frustrated by the failure to implement proportional representation quickly enough (if at all) as well as the Euroscepticism that is endemic to the Tory party. Lib Dem MPs are already exempted from having to support key planks of the Tory platform, such as a tax break for married couples. Likewise, many Conservatives have already said that they would have preferred a minority government rather than a coalition. Among other oddities in this arrangement, Conservative Party members will also be able to campaign against electoral reform, and many plan to do precisely that.

But despite all the sniping that's already begun within and across these two political families, the newlyweds themselves -- i.e., Cameron and Clegg -- are putting a happy face on things. In their first joint press conference, Cameron hailed this as a "remarkable and very welcome day" in British politics.

The honeymoon, at the very least, has begun.

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