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British report British report
by Euro Reporter
2012-09-04 10:40:41
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Britain rediscovers the art of coalition

Eighteen months ago, a lapel microphone captured Nick Clegg joking with David Cameron that they might never find “anything to bloody disagree on”. The leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats’ initial approach to governing with the prime minister’s Conservatives was, as the former Brussels man might have put it, communautaire. Only by embracing all the coalition policies in public and confining squabbles to the back rooms would his party get its share of credit if the government turned out to be a success. Such collegiality would also show voters that coalition itself – the only form of government in which the Lib Dems can ever hope to participate – was a workable thing. For a year Mr Clegg executed this strategy unflinchingly, even voting for an incendiary increase in student fees when the coalition agreement allowed his party to abstain. The deputy prime minister’s switch to a more confrontational approach in the summer of 2011, after he failed to persuade the country to adopt the alternative-vote system in a referendum, was forgivable. Many of his party’s left-leaning voters had defected to Labour and his activists bristled at his effortless amity with the Conservatives. The Tories were also dishonourably complicit in a No to AV campaign that made personal attacks on Mr Clegg.

That fruitful tactic was a strategic error; the Conservatives could have defeated AV without offending their governing partner so grievously. The coalition has never recovered its original bonhomie.  But whatever the justification for it, the strategy of “differentiation”, as Mr Clegg is canny enough not to call it in public, has failed. The Lib Dems have flaunted disagreements with Mr Cameron, launched a revenge attack on the Tories’ cherished parliamentary boundary review after the fall of House of Lords reform, leaked contents of this year’s Budget, and failed to back Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary, during his recent brush with political mortality. Only their commitment to the government’s fiscal strategy has remained admirably adamantine.  Yet none of this ornery behaviour has lifted the Lib Dems’ dismal poll ratings. Neither has it altered the prospects for Mr Clegg’s leadership of his party, which remains likely to end before the next election, though not anytime soon. What it has done is taint not only this particular coalition but coalition as a concept. Voters now overwhelmingly say they favour single-party government. As an existential threat to the Lib Dems, this is as menacing as the fact that they are struggling to score 10 per cent in the polls. Mr Clegg has also shed his unique selling point in the process. He was the only senior politician who believed in coalition in and of itself; he invoked his European hinterland to explain that “new politics” was actually tried and tested in some of the richest and steadiest countries on Earth. It was a distinctive, post-partisan message that neither Mr Cameron nor Ed Miliband, the opposition Labour leader, could ever utter. Now, he gives the impression of sharing power only on extreme sufferance, like any other politician.

Differentiation is also forcing Mr Clegg to take positions that do not suit him. None of his proposed raids on the rich will persuade voters that he entered politics to confiscate people’s money. Indeed, his great triumph in opposition was to wean Lib Dems off the delusion that they had a future as a party to the left of Labour. Vince Cable, the business secretary, and Tim Farron, Lib Dem party president, can plausibly pose as leftwing tub-thumpers. Mr Clegg is better than that.  The conventional view is that Mr Clegg is a political innocent hopelessly outmanoeuvred by worldlier Tories. If that were ever true, almost the opposite now holds. He is, if anything, too tenacious at batting for his party for its own longer-term good. In private, senior Tories do not mock him as a patsy; they curse his guile, intransigence and willingness to air his grievances openly. This might be the rightful duty of a leader fighting for his party, but to what end? The Lib Dems’ electoral plight remains grim. If Mr Clegg wants to serve his party, he should not think of himself as the leader of the Lib Dems at all but as an ambassador for the idea of coalition. In a country where neither of the two main parties has won 40 per cent of the vote in the past two general elections, there is a market for power sharing – as long as it is not seen as inherently fissiparous.

So Mr Clegg must comport himself as a convivial governing partner. This means haggling hard in private but then taking ownership of all the government’s doings in public. It means speaking up for policies which unite the two parties, such as schools reform.  Instead of nixing the boundary review, he should demand a huge policy concession from the Tories to let it through. Personnel matters too: promoting coalition-friendly Lib Dems, such as David Laws and Jeremy Browne, would grease the grinding wheels of the government.  If Mr Clegg initiates a rapprochement, Mr Cameron, who has become positively unctuous in his desire to help his deputy, will reciprocate. For the Lib Dems’ own sake, the two men must again find things to “bloody agree on”.


Britain’s ex-PM Blair rejects Tutu’s charge on Iraq war

Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair has rejected a call by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he and former U.S. President George W. Bush should go on trial for starting the war in Iraq. The outspoken bishop wrote in the British newspaper The Observer that the two leaders acted on a false premise in 2003 when they said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He said that their decision to launch a war “has destabilized and polarized the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history” and should not go unpunished.

He also said that Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush “have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand – with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us.” Mr. Blair issued a stern response Sunday, saying that the argument is not new and has been proven wrong. He also criticized Archbishop Tutu for saying that it was wrong to remove then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein despite his massacre of thousands of Iraqi citizens. But the former British leader added that he had great respect for the archbishop's work.

Tutu, a Nobel Peace prize laureate and retired Anglican bishop, argued that Western leaders are held to a different standard than their African counterparts. He said the death toll during and after the Iraq conflict is sufficient for Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush to face trial in an international court. He said he had decided not to attend a recent South African leadership conference because he would be uncomfortable to appear at a 'leadership' summit together with Mr. Blair.  Tutu was a leading activist campaigning to end apartheid in South Africa, and later chaired a panel that oversaw reconciliation efforts after the end of white minority rule.


Britain ready to underwrite infrastructure projects

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said the government, in a bid to boost the country's sluggish economy, would underwrite altogether 50 billion pounds ($79.3 billion) of infrastructure and house building projects. Osborne said Sunday that the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill would be introduced in the next few weeks and should become law by the end of October, reported Xinhua. The Bill is to give green light to 40 billion pounds of construction projects by using the government's low interest rates to underwrite them.

Projects qualified for government guarantee must be "nationally significant", ready to start construction within 12 months, financially credible and be of "good value" for taxpayers.  Meanwhile, ministers are expected to make plans to underwrite up to 10 billion pounds worth of new homes, including guaranteeing the debt of housing associations and private sector developers. The government will outline details for these projects very soon as the parliament resumes from summer break this week.

Commenting on the expansion of the Heathrow airport which has been repeatedly appealed by senior Conservative politicians recently, Osborne did not rule out the possibility of a third runway for Britain's largest airport, and agreed that extra runway capacity was needed in the South East of England. "It is a question of where it should go - Heathrow, a new (Thames) estuary airport, Stansted, Gatwick - people have lots of different options," the Chancellor said.

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