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24 June, 2011  ▪  Michael Binyon

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

David Cameron managed to maintain popularity of the British government. While the burden of dissatisfied voters was taken by Liberal Democrats

Britain's coalition government, the first comprising more than one political party since the Second World War, has now lasted just over a year. It brought to power a young Prime Minister who had never before held any ministerial office. And it has found itself facing challenges as tough as any Western government has faced for years: how to slash government spending, how to bring troops home from a deeply unpopular war and how to respond to the turmoil in the Arab world. What is the verdict of Britain's voters and the world community?

No government earns popularity by reducing standards of living. But the new government knew last May that it would have to make drastic cuts to Britain's enormous deficit - the result of the last Labour Government's costly bail-out of Britain's ailing banks. The Conservatives, who did not have a majority, persuaded the small Liberal Democrat party to join a coalition to take urgent steps to save the economy. And both parties decided that the best time to inflict harsh measures was straightaway.

The cuts have been drastic. Civil servants have been sacked, spending plans scrapped, taxes increased and social security allowances reduced. One of the most unpopular measures was to raise university tuition fees from £3,000 ayear to a maximum of £ 9,000 - a hefty sum, for which students will have to take out large loans, to be paid back once they start working. It was not only the students who were furious - the Liberal Democrats were accused of breaking their election promises, and there were big protest marches.

Other unpopular measures included big cuts in defense spending - just at the time when Britain was struggling to fulfill its NATO obligations in Afghanistan. Ships, planes and equipment were scrapped and new orders cancelled. As a result, Britain will soon have one new aircraft carrier but no planes to land on it for ten years. Soldiers, officers and defense experts were appalled.

There were also loud protests that all these cuts, although bringing down the deficit, would kill off economic recovery. And recent figures have shown that consumer spending has fallen sharply and Britain is still struggling to get growth going.

Yet the results of recent local elections across the country were very surprising. The Labour party, now in opposition, did poorly, hardly gaining any new local council seats.  By contrast, the Conservatives, who had been expected to lose heavily, actually won extra seats. And the small Liberal Democratic Party was almost wiped out in local authorities across the country. It is clear that Conservative voters are happy with David Cameron but Liberal Democrats are not.

Despite all the economic gloom, the Prime Minister has remained remarkably popular. Partly this is because he appears to be easy-going, not too concerned about his image and not eager to control everything. The contrast with the last two Labour prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were both control freaks intent on controlling the news and their image, is very clear.

Cameron has also been surprisingly radical. He has outlined a domestic program far from traditional Conservative right-wing politics: more help for the lowest earners, more spending on health and schools, tough new measures to curb banks. And although he went to Eton, Britain's top private school, and Oxford University, he does not appear "upper class" but has an easy manner. On a recent holiday, he was photographed with his wife waiting at the airport like any tourist to catch an ordinary budget airline flight to Spain.

In foreign policy Cameron quickly dropped his earlier anti-European rhetoric, and has cultivated good relations with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He is also hoping to repair Britain's poor relations with Moscow, by making a visit there this autumn - the first by a British Prime Minister for five years. But it was difficult to get the balance right with America. Blair's strong support for Bush and for the Iraq war angered many Britons, who saw Britain as too close to the US and too dependent on Washington. Cameron had to try to distance himself in public while remaining close in private.

The first test came with the Arab spring. Cameron called early on for help for Libya's rebels, and together with Sarkozy took the lead in enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi massacring Libyan rebels in Benghazi. He did this without much support from Obama, who let the Europeans take the lead.

This was politically and militarily risky, and the Libyan operation has become bogged down in a stalemate. But voters applauded Cameron for his boldness. Obama, who had remained fairly distant to Britain, then paid a successful state visit in May - and his warm words to British members of parliament bolstered Cameron's standing. The big question now is whether Cameron can start bringing troops home from Afghanistan. The war is deeply unpopular in Britain, and more than 350 soldiers have been killed. It will not be easy to leave without this being seen as a defeat.

A year is not long to judge a government. Already strains are emerging within the coalition. But the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to leave the government - the party would be slaughtered in any general election. Cameron has been able to ignore the right-wing of his party and pursue centrist policies, which has made it harder for Labour, under its new leader Ed Miliband, to attack him. So far, Britain has avoided the turbulence of the euro zone, and Cameron has signaled that foreign policy will concentrate on China, India and new emerging markets. All depends, however, on whether Britain's shaky economy recovers. If it does, he will probably win the next election. If it does not, he may be replaced at some stage by right-wingers in his party already unhappy at his liberal policies.


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