Britain’s unhappy political marriage grows bitter


Cameron, Clegg and spouses: Not all marriages are made in heaven.


Stefan Rousseau

LONDON, UK — Danny Smith’s long list of grievances starts with the two years since he’s been paid to pick up his drumsticks.

So it’s no surprise the unemployed musician is unimpressed by the government’s decision to abandon what promised to be one of its signature achievements: reforming the House of Lords, the unelected, somewhat anachronistic upper chamber of parliament that has long been a target for democracy campaigners.

“I couldn’t care two hoots, to be honest,” said Smith, 58, after another fruitless visit to a state-run job center in northwest London. “Those bastards are just looking after themselves.”

He is right to an extent. Last week’s announcement by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, that his Liberal Democrats are shelving their campaign to overhaul the House of Lords revealed a government hobbled by competing self-interests.

It also spoke volumes about the fragility of the alliance between Clegg’s centrist LibDems, as they’re known, and their senior coalition partners, the right-wing Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron. Some now question whether their unlikely marriage, made in 2010, will last until elections in 2015.

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Lords are currently appointed after being nominated by the prime minister or other political leaders. Their main role is to examine and revise legislation approved by the Commons.

The LibDems have long harbored ambitions to overhaul the chamber by introducing elected seats and making it easier to kick out idle members — chiefly hereditary peers who lean politically toward the right — who have helped keep Liberal ideology on the fringes of British politics for nearly a century.

The Conservatives pledged to support the House of Lords reform under the coalition deal they struck with the LibDems to wrest power from the center-left Labour Party in 2010. All three main parties included the issue in their election manifestos.

But the plan fell apart under pressure from Conservative lawmakers — and many from Labour — who opposed the overhaul, saying they feared a mostly elected upper chamber would challenge the dominance of the lower House of Commons.

Resigned to inevitable defeat, a frustrated Clegg issued a counter-strike: The LibDems would withdraw their endorsement of Conservative plans to redraw election-district boundaries, which promised to deliver them at least 20 safe seats.

That will have major ramifications for the next election, raising the likelihood of a Labour government or a Labour-LibDem coalition.

“Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills,” Clegg said. “But they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance — not just in the coalition agreement, but also in our political system.”

The split between the two parties marks one of the coalition’s darkest hours.

Cameron has sought to play down what he admitted are “fundamental differences” between the partners.

“'We are leaders of two different parties, we often don't agree, we can't hide that,” he told LBC radio after Clegg’s announcement. “There will be arguments and disagreements.”

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That did little to quell mounting speculation over the possibility of the coalition’s collapse, which would allow Labour to form a government with the LibDems or trigger an early election. Either would probably spook Britain’s financial markets at a time that international investors are shell-shocked by the euro crisis.

However there would be no love lost for many British voters if the government were to collapse. Its harsh austerity measures have cut thousands of public-sector jobs and choked welfare to the poor.

The newspaper phone-hacking scandal has further tarnished the government’s image by exposing political ties to Rupert Murdoch’s news empire.

“They’re a waste of space,” said Smith, who currently draws a twice-monthly “jobseeker’s allowance” of $221. “They’re in it for whatever money they can make while pulling the floor out from under people like me.”

Others voiced similar opinions on London’s streets, warning that the anger that helped fuel nationwide riots last summer remains just below the surface of the positive mood generated by the successful Olympic Games.

Opinion polls show the Conservatives increasingly slipping behind Labour. Although Cameron’s 33 percent approval rating still ranks above Labour leader Ed Miliband’s, his disapproval rating has reached 50 percent.

“The government doesn’t seem to live in the real world,” said Ola Balogunn, 33, a BBC engineer. “It needs to spend money to create jobs, but all we’re seeing is cuts, cuts, cuts.”

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“Fighting between the coalition isn’t helping,” he added. “They should be working together to help people, but instead we see the Conservatives dominating. Most of the reasons the two parties got together have turned into nothing.”

Despite the infighting and predictions of doom, however, political analysts believe the coalition will probably last until 2015, with both sides feeling cursed to be bound together.

“It would be suicidal for either of them to break it off,” said Matthew Ashton of Nottingham Trent University, “especially with the economic situation taking a turn for the worse.”

Entering the coalition has eroded support for the LibDems. Dropping its opposition to new university tuition fees lost a substantial youth vote in addition to 2 million supporters who had earlier defected from Labour, he said.

The Conservatives are also weak, having gambled their credibility on the promise of an economic turnaround that’s unlikely to materialize this year, according to the latest forecast from the Bank of England.

With most predictions saying the Conservatives would lose power in early elections, Ashton said, they “are going to try to hold it together in the hope that something, namely economic growth, turns up in the next two years.”

For now, the marriage lives on.