Tories win all round

The inconclusive general election of May 6, 2010 has resulted in the first elected British coalition government since 1931 (a National Government was convened for World War II). The Conservatives, led by David Cameron, have reached agreement with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, and their combined strength in the House of Commons will give them an overall majority of 77 seats. The negotiations, which lasted five days, involved the LibDems in talks with both the Tories and Gordon Brown's defeated Labour Party. Mr. Cameron, the new Prime Minister, will have Mr. Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister; the Liberal Democrats are to get four other Cabinet posts and, at least, one junior ministership in each of 20 ministries. The coalition has decided on a fixed five-year term, a LibDem wish. Both parties have made other concessions. Mr. Cameron has dropped plans to cut the inheritance tax, and will take steps to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 a year. Mr. Clegg accepts that there will be £6 billion of public spending cuts this year, but has won a commitment to making the House of Lords a mainly elected chamber.

The new government will face tensions over several issues, and both party leaders encounter internal dissent. The economy will clearly be Problem Number One. With a 2009-10 budget deficit at 10.9 per cent of GDP, there are likely to be sharp disagreements over where the cuts will fall, despite the Prime Minister's promise to protect frontline public services. Secondly, the Eurosceptic faction in the generally hard-Right Tory party is very suspicious of Mr. Clegg's openly pro-EU party, even though the coalition has ruled out any further transfer of domestic powers to the EU. Thirdly, centre-left opinion on the LibDem side may resist Conservative welfare reform plans, and in the U.K. domestic elections the party will probably lose a big chunk of ex-Labour voters for sharing power with the Conservatives. The new government's biggest constitutional problem, however, will be over the electoral system for general elections. The Tories have always opposed reforming the current Simple Majority system, but Mr. Cameron has agreed to a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. The LibDems' acceptance of this amounts to the abandonment of one of their greatest strengths, the demand for a fully proportional system, and Mr. Cameron has gained far more than he has conceded. This goes far beyond questions of a fair share of seats for all parties. A parliament that represented British public opinion with reasonable accuracy would never have allowed the illegal invasion of Iraq.