Britain’s coalition government marked its first 100 days on Wednesday, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg claiming it had surprised many with action not paralysis, though sweeping cuts are to come.
When May’s inconclusive general election produced an unlikely alliance between the centre-right Conservatives and Clegg’s centrist Liberal Democrats, many observers predicted its wheels would soon seize up and it would collapse.
But Clegg claimed the new government had already unveiled more reforms than the previous Labour government did under Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown.
“I think we hit the ground running, I think we have actually introduced more reforms in 100 days than the last government did in 13 years — political reforms, to improve the NHS [National Health Service], to improve schools, changes to the tax systems and to pensions — these are things that I am really proud of,” Clegg told GMTV television.
However, he said what mattered most was what Britain’s first coalition government since World War II would have achieved in five years’ time.
“Have we sorted out the economy? Are there jobs? Do people feel we live in a fairer country? That is the acid test and that is what I am working towards,” he said.
Clegg is running the government while Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, takes a two-week holiday with his young family.
The working relationship between the two men who barely knew each other before the election appears close.
But their partnership and the uneasy bond between their two parties — the LibDems are more natural partners for the centre-left Labour — will be severely tested over the coming weeks.
The coalition will ask a wary country to swallow some of the deepest cuts in public spending for decades as it seeks to slash Britain’s record £154,7-billion deficit.
The results of the comprehensive spending review — identifying where the axe will fall — will be unveiled on October 20.
But an early taste of the harsh measures in store came in a letter to justice ministry staff leaked by unions, warning them to expect 15 000 of the department’s 80 000 jobs to be cut.
So far, the coalition continues to enjoy support. A survey for the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday showed 46% of voters believed it was doing a good job, against 36% who considered its performance poor.
But Cameron admitted in an interview that its popularity would soon wane, so it must take action quickly.
“You have a limited time to use the goodwill that you have to try to turn that into concrete results,” he told the Sun.
Faultlines are also emerging in the coalition, with the Liberal Democrat junior partners pushing for more power.
LibDem deputy leader Simon Hughes hinted at growing dissatisfaction within the ranks when he said their lawmakers should get a veto on policies proposed by the coalition.
“If the coalition wants to deliver [parliamentary] votes, neither party on its own has a majority, so we have to make sure everyone is brought into that.
“The parliamentary party on behalf of the wider party on big issues has to be able to say, ‘No, we can’t go down this road’,” Hughes told BBC radio.
Business groups have largely welcomed the coalition’s determination to act swiftly to cut the deficit.
Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry employers’ group, said “although there are many risks and uncertainties ahead, the dangers of inaction on fiscal policy seemed to most business people to be even greater”.
But unions are deeply concerned.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the cuts risked plunging Britain back into recession.
“These cuts are doing the opposite of what the government intends. Far from securing the economic recovery, they are slamming on the economic brakes,” he said. — AFP