The United Kingdom’s coalition government is a 100 days old, but the fun and games have barely begun.
The effects on the UK of two extraordinary and virtually unprecedented factors –the Conservative-Liberal coalition itself and looming spending cuts– will not be truly felt until Parliament gets back to business on September 6.
Britain is experiencing its first peace-time coalition government in modern history, and an ICM poll published on Wednesday shows the marriage still enjoys popular support. 43 percent of the electorate said it was doing a good job, while 36 percent said it was not.
The coalition’s very existence may restore confidence in a parliamentary system whose reputation was battered by Labour, and especially Tony Blair’s, authoritarian leadership style.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will have to rule much more by consensus and will be forced to debate every issue much more publicly than his previous Labour predecessors.
But how this new leadership will work in practise remains to be seen. The upcoming parliamentary term will show whether Britain’s system of democracy can cope when no one party enjoys an overall majority. Time will also show whether the spirit of friendship and cooperation between Cameron and his Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will remain true.
The hundred days have been marked by grand ambition. Bold new policies include a vision to transform education, to reform the vast National Health Service and to take a fresh look at the country’s expensive welfare system.
In a break from Tory tradition –and in an obvious nod to their Liberal bedfellows– the government plans to reduce the prison population and increase civil liberties.
And in a move totally contrary to Conservative policy, Britons will vote in a referendum next year on whether to change the voting system to a model that goes some way towards the Liberal desire for proportional representation.
Osborne’s spending axe
But by far the most ambitious is UK finance minister George Osborne’s plan to slash public spending by between 25 and 40 percent and so tackle the huge budget deficit he has inherited.
Osborne’s grand cull marks the ideological gulf between the left and right, and even risks putting Britain’s government at odds with US President Barack Obama’s administration, which has warned European governments against deficit reduction policies that could provoke a global “double dip” recession.
This fear has been echoed at home. The Left-leaning Guardian’s leading article
on Wednesday called Osborne’s policy on budget cuts “the most draconian spending round in modern history” and claimed it “put the prospects of more general economic recovery at unnecessary risks.”
The Daily Mirror
, a stalwart of the trade unionist left, was more blunt: “Reform should be carried out when the pressure is off. Mr Cameron seeks to destroy our welfare state by slashing and burning essential public services using the two-pronged argument of government reform and deficit hysteria.”
In stark contrast, the right-wing broadsheet the Daily Telegraph is flying the banner for a reform it deems absolutely necessary. “The political authority to oversee a Comprehensive Spending Review that will not only restore the integrity of public finances, but also deliver the leaner, more efficient state upon which our long-term prospects as a country depend,” the paper said in Wednesday’s leading article.
Osborne’s spending cuts, a huge gamble with Britain’s economic future hanging in the balance, far exceed anything attempted by the arch-conservative Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. The future of the historic Con-Lib arrangement depends entirely on its eventual success or failure.