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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2010

Brits greet new government's odd couple

WASHINGTON POST

LONDON - The two men strolled side by side through the flower gardens behind No. 10 Downing Street yesterday, bearing no resemblance to the bitter rivals of last week's election. Instead, Britain's new Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his unlikely deputy, Liberal Democrat Nicholas Clegg, finished each other's sentences, patted each other's backs, and laughed at each other's jokes.

In their first joint public appearance since striking a landmark deal Tuesday to form a unity government, they insisted theirs was no marriage of convenience. Acting like old chums, they raised the curtain on a coalition they claimed would bridge the gap between right and left, conservative, and liberal. Their message: Maybe we all really can get along.

On Day One of their government, they gave some basis for that hope, unveiling a pact that showed the two sides had managed to find extraordinary common ground in Britain's first-ever peacetime coalition between conservatives and liberals. In fewer than five days after Thursday's vote yielded a majority for no party, they had radically rethought priorities in order to rule.

The Conservatives abandoned tax breaks for the wealthy to give them to the poor. The Liberals backed away from dismantling Britain's nuclear deterrent and supported harsher immigration laws. To their delight, the two camps found they both dislike big banks - they want to tax them, and maybe break them up - and share a desire to protect civil liberties. And they agreed avoiding a Greeklike debt crisis by cutting Britain's huge deficit - to start by slashing $9 billion in spending this year - is priority No. 1.

In language that raised the eyebrows of seasoned observers, Mr. Cameron, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, described the new alliance as fundamentally "progressive." Together, he said, he and Mr. Clegg will usher in an era "where cooperation wins out over confrontation, where compromise, where give and take, where reasonable grown-up behavior, is not a sign of weakness, but a show of strength."

The media dubbed the event "the Dave and Nick Show." "It is a novel sight for Britain, after all the political bickering, to have two rivals standing outside No. 10 shaking hands in a grand partnership for the good of the nation," said Andrew Rawnsley, a commentator for the Observer. "However bogus that rhetoric might become over time, at least initially, voters find the idea of these two working together in a different spirit a pretty attractive idea."

Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg are centrists who share a certain chemistry: They are both upper-class, well-educated Brits in their early 40s. But elements within their parties are more extreme, and the coalition will be tested by the parties' bases as they try to agree on legislation. Just in case, they are writing an insurance policy: a law requiring a 55 percent vote to bring down the new government before May, 2015.

The coalition will be aided, at least initially, by fractured opposition from Labour, rudderless after Prime Minister Gordon Brown's resignation and facing a leadership struggle that could see ex-Foreign Minister David Miliband running against brother Ed Miliband, Mr. Brown's climate-change chief.



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