British Cabinet Holds First Meeting

British Cabinet Holds First Meeting
# 13 May 2010 17:16 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Onetime political rivals were squeezed shoulder to shoulder on Thursday as Britain’s new coalition government held its first formal cabinet meeting, seeking to demonstrate that its members could work together despite their ideological differences and party rivalries, APA reports quoting The New York Times.
The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, presided over the meeting, with his deputy, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic leader, sitting across the from him at the long, crowded cabinet table. The officials discussed Britain’s huge budget deficit, bank reform and Afghanistan, and then ended the meeting with an agreement to cut their own salaries by 5 percent, according to an account from the Press Association, the British news agency.
Afterwards, government ministers told reporters in London that they had worked with “common purpose,” that everyone in the new government’s leadership was “completely focused and unified,” and that the meeting had been “great, actually.”
It seemed to be a continuation of the new government’s unity offensive.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg flung off their differences and stood side by side, promising to act in concert to promote economic stability, reform the country’s frayed political system and demonstrate that their unlikely arrangement is more than just a hasty marriage of necessity.
The men pledged that their jury-rigged government, with a cabinet made up of both parties, would tackle the bloated deficit by cutting £6 billion ($8.8 billion) from the budget this year.
They said that the new arrangement, which was forced on them when the Conservatives failed to achieve a parliamentary majority on their own and looked to the Liberal Democrats for support, represented an end to the old politics of self-interest and partisan short-sightedness. And they said they would work together to tear up the old political system by establishing five-year fixed terms for Parliament — though they left an escape clause for disgruntled legislators, under which Parliament could be dissolved if 55 percent of its members voted in favor of doing so.
The moves were intended to demonstrate to a jittery, skeptical public that the new government would act swiftly and that two parties whose past relations had shifted along the spectrum from contempt to indifference could, in fact, function harmoniously and stably.
How this will be done remains to be seen.
Yes, Mr. Cameron admitted on Wednesday in response to a reporter’s question during an extraordinary news conference at 10 Downing Street, under the circumstances he did indeed regret having once declared his favorite joke to be “Nick Clegg.”
“We’re all going to have things that we said thrown back at us,” Mr. Cameron said, as Mr. Clegg, who has in the past said some nasty things of his own about his new boss, feigned hurt feelings.
Mr. Cameron said that he had moved on from partisan rancor and was looking at “the bigger picture.” He added, “And if it means swallowing some humble pie, and if it means eating some of your words, I cannot think of a more excellent diet.” It was a surreal scene, the two avowed political rivals making virtually identical statements about their new purpose and radiating a joshing, chummy bonhomie at odds with the brutal tone of the election campaign.
Not everyone, however, was convinced by the men’s youthful good spirits, apparent similarities of outlook and appearance — they are the same age, look vaguely alike and have eerily similar voices — or sudden about-face into coziness. One blogger in the New Statesman on Wednesday called them “TweedleCam and TweedleClegg.”
“Oh, God — the country is now being run by two characters from a Richard Curtis film,” ran one widely circulated Twitter message, referring to the British director of happily-ever-after movies like “Love Actually.”
But the ebullient togetherness did not falter. Not only did Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg plan to govern together seamlessly to lead the country out of its worst economic crisis in memory, they announced, but they also intended to remake the political system itself.
“We are announcing a new politics — a new politics where the national interest is more important than party interest, where cooperation wins out over confrontation, where compromise, give and take, reasonable, civilized grown-up behavior is not a sign of weakness but of strength,” Mr. Cameron said.
Whether the political self-effacement needed for such an endeavor is likely to endure is another matter. Many political commentators looked on with open-mouthed incredulity.
“The one thing that’s probably guaranteed is that it won’t last very long,” said Lawrence Black, a senior lecturer in British history at Durham University.
Martin Farr, a senior lecturer in contemporary British history at Newcastle University, said on Wednesday: “Today, everything is sunny and rosy. But there are so many divisions between the parties on so many issues that I can’t see how it can be anything like as polished and harmonious as they project. It has the recipe for being a complete mess.”
Still, the coalition is forging ahead. Its new program is a mash-up of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies. The Conservatives prevailed on protecting the country’s Trident nuclear missile system, which the Liberal Democrats wanted to scrap. The new government will not grant amnesty to illegal immigrants or allow Britain to be integrated further into Europe, both of which the Liberal Democrats had proposed.
For their part, the Liberal Democrats won on redistributing the tax burden so that it fell more heavily on richer people, and on changing the financing formulas for education.
They also won a promise of a referendum to change the voting system to make it easier for smaller parties to win seats in Parliament.
Unlike American presidents, who have several months to organize themselves before taking office, British prime ministers are expected to move instantly into 10 Downing Street and start running the country, making Wednesday a whirlwind for the new premier.
The new cabinet includes several prominent Conservatives whose presence appears intended to appease the right wing of the party, including William Hague, the foreign secretary; Theresa May, the home secretary; and Ian Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary.
In his own remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Clegg looked at first overwhelmed, and then delighted, by the chance to appear at 10 Downing Street. As leader of the country’s third largest party, he would have virtually no chance of getting a senior government post without joining a coalition as a junior partner.
He said at the news conference that the coalition government would endure because, despite the differences between the parties, “we are united by a common purpose.”
But there are many housekeeping matters that need to be addressed. A new election looms for a final parliamentary seat that is still open, and the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will most likely field rival candidates, as ever.
Mr. Cameron joked that he and his new deputy could drive to the district together for the campaign “to save petrol.” Whereupon Mr. Clegg said, “We’ll get out on opposite sides.”