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Scandals rock British government, threatening fragile coalition

The new British government of Prime Minister David Cameron, less than three weeks old, has been rocked by revelations that have forced one of its senior members to resign, the latest victim of a wide-ranging political scandal that has hobbled each of the country’s three major parties.

The Telegraph revealed on Friday that David Laws, the chief secretary to the treasury, had claimed 40,000 pounds (close to $60,000) in expenses as a member of parliament to pay rent to his partner, whom the paper labeled his “secret lover.” Then on Sunday, the Telegraph reported that Laws’ successor, Danny Alexander, had himself abused the parliamentary expenses system, by avoiding capital gains taxes on his second home.

Similar revelations have felled high-profile figures from all three British parties in recent months, fundamentally reshaping the U.K. political landscape and prompting calls for widespread electoral reform. But Laws was the first victim for Britain’s new coalition government, and his resignation was a considerable blow to Cameron, who had promised a “new politics” during the campaign.

Laws was not only a senior member of the government but also one of the architects of the agreement to form a coalition and install Cameron, a Conservative, as prime minister. The Conservative Party won the most seats in parliamentary elections on May 6, but fell 20 seats short of an outright majority. The Liberal Democrats supplied the remaining seats in exchange for several key cabinet posts, including chief secretary to the treasury, the second-highest economic post after chancellor of the Exchequer.

Backbenchers in each party had feared that such a coalition would be untenable, and Laws’ resignation will likely provide the first test of the government’s durability. As Telegraph contributor and Conservative columnist Nile Gardiner told Need to Know, strains on the already-fragile arrangement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could inspire voters, not to mention party leaders, to abandon the coalition. Such a development could paralyze the government at a time of financial uncertainty and voter anger, and perhaps even prompt a new election.

Laws was seen as a rising star in British politics, a former investment banker who climbed the ranks along with the party’s leader, and current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Both Clegg and Cameron praised Laws as “a good and honorable man,” and defended his expense claims as a misguided attempt to guard his personal life from those close to him. In his statement, Cameron said Laws’ privacy had now been “cruelly shattered.”

Laws was also expected to play a major role in attempts by the British government to pare down expenses and cut the massive deficit, which has stoked fears among some that the U.K. will be the next country to require a bailout from the European Union. Just as recently as this week, he was said to have had considerable influence on the government’s first Queen’s Speech, which laid out an aggressive program for deficit-cutting and promised to restore investors’ confidence in the country’s finances.

In a letter to Cameron announcing his resignation, Laws wrote that the row over his personal life would have distracted from the new government’s economic agenda.

“I do not see how I can carry out my crucial work on the Budget and spending review while I have to deal with the private and public implications of recent revelations,” Laws said, according to the BBC. “I cannot now escape the conclusion that what I have done was in some way wrong, even though I did not gain any financial benefit from keeping my relationship secret in this way.”

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