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Britains coalition no bed of roses

LONDON, May 9 – A year after their chummy first appearance in Downing Street\’s rose garden the honeymoon is over for Britain\’s coalition, but this thorny political marriage has surprised many by surviving for so long.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats have faced dissent in their parties and protests in the streets as they push through harsh austerity measures.

Tensions flared last week after the Lib Dems lost a national referendum on voting reform and then suffered their worst results in local council elections in more than 20 years.

But Britain\’s first coalition government since World War II remains intact — no small matter in a country where the idea of European-style political power-sharing remains largely alien.

"David Cameron\’s biggest success is bolting this coalition together and actually using a coalition, which most people in Britain thought would lead to weak government and perhaps another general election almost immediately," Tony Travers, an expert at the London School of Economics, told AFP.

The coalition was formed on May 12, 2010, five days after the centre-right Conservatives won the most seats in a general election but fell short of a majority.

After five days of horsetrading during which Labour prime minister Gordon Brown resigned, the Conservatives finally wooed their erstwhile foes, the centrist Lib Dems.

Clegg secured a concession on one of his party\’s most cherished causes — a promise for a referendum in May 2011 on whether to abandon the first past the post system that Britain uses to elect its lawmakers.

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Commentators jokingly compared the telegenic Cameron and Clegg to newlyweds after their relaxed double act at a news conference in the rose-lined garden of the prime minister\’s residence at 10 Downing Street later that day.

Together they pledged a "radical" government that would introduce public spending cuts to tackle a record deficit left by Labour.

The smiles did not last long, however.

In October the coalition detailed its plans to triple tuition fees for university students, overhaul the welfare system and make big reductions across all government departments.

A series of protests erupted in London and turned violent on several occasions. Rioters in December attacked the car of heir to the throne Prince Charles and smashed their way inside the finance ministry.

And it was soon clear the Lib Dems were becoming a shield for the Conservatives. Clegg in particular became a hate figure during the demonstrations for allegedly breaking his election promises.

Foreign issues including Britain\’s military role in Libya gave the coalition some breathing space at the start of the year, while the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29 provided a feelgood boost.

But just a week after the royal marriage the political one started to rupture, when a war of words erupted over the referendum on whether to change to the Alternative Vote (AV) for general elections.

Clegg accused the "No" camp of "lies" and Lib Dem Energy Minister Chris Huhne likened its tactics to those of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

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The result on May 5 ended with an overwhelming 67.9 percent of the country voting no while the Lib Dems were hammered in local elections. Cameron\’s Tories, however, escaped unscathed and actually gained seats.

Speculation remains that the Lib Dems may decide to cut their losses and pull out, knowing they face an electoral wipeout but deciding to do so with their principles intact.

But with both Cameron and Clegg insisting the coalition will ride out the storm and see out its five year term, reports of the coalition\’s demise seem premature.

"Whenever Nick Clegg and I speak, the one thing we come back to again and again is our determination to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the long term," Cameron wrote in the Mail on Sunday.

Clegg said on Sunday that the Liberal Democrats would be more assertive and could even veto planned healthcare reforms, but he too insisted that the coalition would endure.

Tony Travers, however, said Cameron\’s apparent solicitousness for his coalition partners may be a sign of further political cunning.

"Actually by embracing the Liberal Democrats he may even weaken them more than he weakens his own party as they (the Conservatives) inevitably become unpopular in mid-term," he said.



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