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U.K. Opposition Parties Prepare to Form Government Under Conservative Leader

May 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his resignation as Conservative and Liberal Democrats neared an agreement on forming a new coalition government. Jeffrey Brown talks to reporter Ned Temko about the new administration.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me from London to take us through the dramatic transition is Ned Temko, a writer for the British Observer newspaper. He’s working on a book about British politics.

Ned, welcome.

Was there a final straw that led to Gordon Brown’s decision to resign this evening?

NED TEMKO, The Observer: Yes, the final straw was fairly simple. He just didn’t have the numbers to form a government, and not only that. Increasingly, within the Labor Party itself, I think there was a feeling, particularly among a younger generation, that, even if they could somehow cobble together some sort of tenuous coalition, that, in the end, it wouldn’t be credible with the country.

And, indeed, people were beginning to term a putative deal between Labor and the Lib Dems as a coalition of the losers, because both of those parties actually lost seats. And the only one of the parties that gained seats in this inconclusive general election a week ago was the Conservatives.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, tell us about the new prime minister. What kind of figure has he been in British politics for the last few years? What’s expected of him now?

NED TEMKO: Well, the first thing to say is, he’s very young. He’s 43 years old. He will be the youngest British prime minister in 200 years.

And, indeed, you were referring to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat who is the deputy prime minister, also 43 years old, so, a very young team. David Cameron’s rise has been meteoric. I remember when I first met him was in, I guess, 2005, when he was an outsider for the job of leadership of the Conservative Party, and he was visiting nursery schools in his local constituency near Oxford.

And I was struck then — and many people have been struck — by the fact of his self-confidence, his unflappability. In a way, he’s kind of the polar opposite of Gordon Brown, because Gordon Brown, one of his problems in national leadership has been that he’s not a natural communicator. He has a short temper.

David Cameron, by contrast, is a very kind of natural politician and communicator, and very self-confident. And I think one of the remarkable things about this coalition government, the first coalition government for 70 years in this country, is how much David Cameron has been willing to give away to the Liberal Democrats to make this work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let’s go into that.

Mr. Cameron, we heard him say he aimed to form a proper and full coalition. And now we have heard that he’s appointed Mr. Clegg as the deputy. Five members of the Liberal Democrats will be in that coalition.

What jumps out at you? What does that mean? What kind of coalition is it and how fragile a coalition is it?

NED TEMKO: Well, the first thing to say is, the last time there was any talk here about a coalition involving the Liberal Democrats, it was, politically, a more natural pairing. And that was between Tony Blair, who had just been elected Labor leader, prime minister, in a landslide in 1997, and the Liberal Democrats.

Even at the height of those negotiations, which in the end failed, the maximum on offer for the Liberal Democrats was two seats at the cabinet table. So, that gives you a measure of how much more, to use David Cameron’s words, proper and full this coalition is. So, that is surprising element number one.

The other thing is that some of these jobs are probably going to be quite big. And if you remember, the Lib Dems are the third party. They got less seats this time around than in the previous election. So, on the face of it, Cameron didn’t have to give away all this.

But I think what this reflects is to make sure this isn’t a fragile coalition, and indeed to make sure, because there’s lots of speculation that it could last for a year, maybe even six months.

I think the emphasis is on a fixed-term Parliament for four years, with a hefty majority, if it stays together, of 70 in the House of Commons, which is — is what Cameron wants, and it sounds like Clegg is very much on board.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does it suggest — it’s early, of course, but what does it suggest to you about potential changes in policy, economic — economically or internationally?

NED TEMKO: Well, I think, economically, in a way, ironically, this is an easy time to form a coalition government, in the sense that the deficit, the national debt, all these recession-related problems are so enormous that, no matter who is in Number 10 Downing Street, it was pretty clear there are going to have to be massive and sustained cuts in a public expenditure.

The Conservatives are already committed to an emergency budget within 50 days. And although, rhetorically, these two parties are not natural bedfellows, on these big economic questions, both parties seem to recognize that they have to show, first of all, credibility for the international markets, and they have to be able to take tough decisions.

So, in a way, the normal friction in a coalition government may be lessened simply by the — the scale of the economic problems they face. But you have already seen Cameron jettisoning at least two kind of emblematic Conservative campaign pledges: one, to give tax breaks to families, rather than single parents, and another is to accept the Liberal Democrat proposal to basically take — eventually, take anybody earning less than 10 thousand pounds a year out of paying income tax altogether.

So, there has been give-and-take. And the real question will be whether both parties stick with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ned, just briefly, because, remind us, this is such a contrast to the American system, we watched the new prime minister go through the door at 10 Downing Street. The transition happened so quickly. He begins governing right away?

NED TEMKO: He does. And, in fact, in the two statements issued by Buckingham Palace after the audiences that Gordon Brown and David Cameron had with the queen, one, the resignation, the other asking Cameron to form a government, there was a difference of 50 minutes, less than an hour.

And unlike, for instance, in the States, there’s no transition. And, as you say, Cameron is now in Number 10 Downing Street. The other main difference is, there isn’t a huge staff turnover. The same largely civil servant staff in Number 10 and indeed in many government ministries will operate no matter whether the Tories, Labor or the Lib Dems are in charge.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ned Temko of The Observer from London, thanks so much.