Conservative Cameron Becomes British Prime Minister

After talks between Labour and Liberal Democrats collapsed on Tuesday evening, there was nothing standing between David Cameron and 10 Downing Street anymore. Around eight o’clock GMT, the Conservative leader arrived at Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth II asked him to form a government in her name.

After thirteen years out of power, the Conservatives return to government in a “proper and full coalition” with the liberals. In a statement, Cameron added that he hoped to provide “strong, stable government” and expected that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and he could “put aside party differences and work hard for the common good and the national interest.”

Cameron admitted that the country suffers “deep, pressing problems,” including a huge deficit and a “political system in need of reform.” This could indicate that the Conservatives have come to an agreement with their future partners about abolishing Britain’s antiquated voting system to allow minority parties proportionate representation in Parliament.

Britain’s financial woes ought to be Cameron’s foremost concern however, for the country is still mired in recession and confronted with an enormous national debt. Just days before May’s election, economic historian Niall Ferguson warned about the dire state of Britain’s public finances. “The trajectory of British public debt over the next thirty years,” he said, “absent a major change of policy, will take it to a mind blowing 500 percent of GDP.”

Ferguson predicated that the next government would have “a ghastly task on their hands” to try to reform Britain’s expansive, and costly, welfare state. The country was more ready for Thatcherism in 1979, according to Ferguson, “yet it needs it more today than it did then.” He might have echoed a warning expressed by Governor Mervyn King of the Bank of England who noted last month that forthcoming tax hikes and public spending cuts would leave whatever party came to government so unpopular that it could end up being thrown out of power for thirty years to come.

Britain’s national accounts are in a state of abject crisis indeed. The budget deficit stands at £163 billion today, or 12 percent of GDP — far above the European average of 7.5 percent and just one point behind Greece’s. The national debt has reached a record high of £857 billion meanwhile.

During the last thirteen years of Labour government, spending on health care and education has more than doubled while taxes remained almost unchanged. The gargantuan expenditure of bailouts and stimulus packages came on top of that along with the effect of sliding tax revenues in the recession.

During the election campaign, all party leaders agreed that cutbacks would be necessary but none, Cameron included, dared volunteer specific plans to bring spending under control. George Osborne, the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, will have a difficult job at his hands.

Tens of thousands of jobs may disappear as public services are pruned and unions are already gearing up for a fight. Last month more than 10,000 public-sector workers rallied in London, chanting “No ifs, no buts, no public-sector cuts” but David Cameron will have little choice but to rein in spending by getting people off the government’s payroll.

Andrew Lansley from South Cambridgeshire will be health secretary in Cameron’s cabinet; William Hague of Richmond Yorkshire, who led the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2001 and informally services as Cameron’s deputy, will be his foreign secretary. Liberal Democrat appointees include Vince Cable, to be chief secretary to the Treasury, and David Laws, the next secretary for children, schools and families.

After Election, Britain Wonders: What Now?

Statue of former British prime minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, in Parliament Square, London, England, May 30, 2005
Statue of former British prime minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, in Parliament Square, London, England, May 30, 2005 (JR P)

People in the United Kingdom woke up to a morning of continued political uncertainty on Friday.

With election results pouring in all through the night, no decisive Conservative victory, let alone a viable majority, has emerged yet. Read more

Conservatives Expected to Win UK Elections

David Cameron’s Conservative Party will fall just seventeen seats short of a parliamentary majority, according to a joint poll conducted by major British broadcasters.

The Conservatives are set to win almost a hundred more seats than they gained in 2005, possibly up to 305. Labour would have 255 while the Liberal Democrats, in spite of building unprecedented momentum in the run-up to Thursday’s elections, are likely to actually lose a seat, down to 61.

There are several reasons to question the reliability of the polls. At the Financial Times, Alex Barker notes, among other things, that one out of five voters refuse to respond to exit polls while one of our five votes are cast by mail and therefore not accounted for.

In a brief statement to the press, Conservative leader and possible future prime minister David Cameron declared, “This is a decisive rejection of Labour. We can govern with this result.”

Although polls closed across the country at ten o’clock in the evening, people were still queuing up to cast their vote at least in the districts of Leeds, Sheffield, Sutton Coldfield and Newcastle, according to the BBC. Sky News reported that polling stations in Newcastle upon Tyne and Wallsend were allowed to stay open until everyone had voted.

With such an impressive gain, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will attempt to come to a coalition with the liberals. They might be able to achieve majority with some of the smaller political parties, like Northern Ireland’s Unionists. Notably, Labour and the Liberal Democrats don’t hold a majority either, ruling out the possibility of another Gordon Brown government.

In either event, the election results will likely stir further discussion about the future of Britain’s antiquated voting system which currently denies minority parties, the Liberal Democrats included, proportionate representation in Parliament.

What’s a Big Society?

In opposition to “big government” and the British welfare state, the Conservative Party under David Cameron has come up with an alternative approach — “big society.” What does it mean?

According to the Conservatives’ website, they favor a society based on “social responsibility and community action.” They promise that under a Conservative government, “charities, voluntary groups and a new generation of community organizers will help tackle some of the most stubborn social problems.” And they have some thoughts on how to do it.

Several of the proposals lack any substance. The Conservatives would establish, for instance, a new “Big Society Bank” to fund neighborhood action and charities; launch a “Big Society Day” to celebrate their work and encourage others to partake in social efforts; and rebrand the civil service the “civic service” by getting bureaucrats to volunteer and participate. With unnecessary paperwork and “stiffling” red tape cut, civil servants ought to have plenty of time to spent on “social enterprises” indeed but it all won’t change the country too radically.

The party further pledges to develop “a new measure of wellbeing that encapsulates the social value of state action,” whatever that means. But they have more concrete proposals as well.

Among other things, the Conservatives intend to introduce a National Citizen Service to get youngsters involved in “improving their communities.” They will get charities and voluntary groups involved in existing programs as Sure Start, which is a Treasury effort to improve childcare and education. And they will raise “an army of independent community organizers to help people establish and run neighborhood groups.”

This, of course, is all dependent on people’s willingness to participate — except when you’re under sixteen and thrust into an array of “community” programs.

If people want to work for their community, that’s wonderful. And it’s understandable that the Conservatives, who favor small government, especially in times of financial need, bother to explain in such detail what they’re going to replace Labour’s many pervasive welfare programs with. But they should be careful not to substitude one government operation for another. How exactly are they going to “encourage” people to donate more time and money to charity if not with financial incentives? How would they “promote the delivery of public services” if not with more regulation and control? In the end, there may be little difference between a state-run “big society” and good old “big government.”

Clegg: Brown Can’t Stay If Labour Loses

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it would be “preposterous” for Gordon Brown to stay on as prime minister should his Labour Party come in third in the popular vote in Britain’s election next May 6.

After the British party leaders debated on television for the first time two weeks ago, Clegg emerged as a serious contender to both major parties. The Liberal Democrats are now set to win more votes than they ever have yet Britain’s archaic electoral system will probably deny them much seats in Parliament. In spite of Labour’s waning popularity, it might well come out as the biggest party once again.

“There are now indications Labour might come third in terms of people voting for the different parties,” Clegg told the BBC yesterday. “It is just preposterous, the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes it still somehow has the right to carry on squatting in No. 10,” the premier’s Downing Street office, “and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister.”

The election is increasingly likely to produce a hung parliament, one in which neither party manages to gain an overall majority. Both Labour and the Conservatives will probably try to come to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats under such circumstances. Although Clegg is said to sympathize with the Tories personally, his party leans more to the left and prefers to work with Labour.

Prime Minister Brown has touted the Liberal Democrats with promises of electoral reform in recent weeks, apparently anticipating the need to find common ground with the minority faction. Nonetheless, Brown and Clegg repeatedly attacked one another during the debates. Clegg’s recent warning only casts the prospect of an alliance in further doubt.

British Party Leaders Debate Foreign Policy

The leaders of the three major British political parties debated foreign policy on Sky News tonight. Questions from the audience quickly steered the discussion in a more domestic direction but the politicians were able to present their views on the European Union, the special relationship with the United States, climate change and defense.


20:18: By Nick Ottens

The debate started off with a discussion on Britain’s role within the European Union. With the exception of Cameron, the party leaders stressed the benefits derived from EU membership. Brown, for instance, claimed that as many as three million British jobs depend on Europe while Clegg promised greater British leadership within union. The Conservative leader was skeptical. He pledged never to surrender the pound in favor of the euro while for all powers to be transfered from Westminster to Brussels, Cameron demanded a referendum.

Both Brown and Clegg lambasted the Conservative Party for pulling out of the center-right People’s Party in the European Parliament to join the Euroskeptic, anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists group. According to Clegg, this club is made up of crazy, nationalistic homophobes.


20:22: By Nick Ottens

On defense, the party leaders reiterated the positions they had taken during their confrontation last week. Cameron stressed the importance of sending troops into battle with the right equipment; Clegg said again that he didn’t want to buy the Eurofighter Tranche 3B; Brown offered little of substance other than praising the bravery of British troops stationed in the Middle East.


20:26: By Nick Ottens

Cameron took the opportunity to criticize Clegg for wanting to scrap the Trident nuclear defense system. An independent deterrent, he argued, is essential in a world that is changing so rapidly. “We simply don’t know what the world will look like in forty years’ time.”

Brown was quick to join him. He told the Liberal Democrat to “get real.” With Iran and North Korea developing a nuclear capacity, it would be irresponsible, said the prime minister, to surrender Britain’s nuclear deterrent.


20:34: By Nick Ottens

All leaders were glad to present themselves as environmentalists. Brown stood out, though, by expressing concern over Britain’s dependancy on oil and wondering why his colleagues weren’t more in favor of switching to nuclear. “Any party that is now excluding nuclear power,” he said, “is not really thinking about the needs of the future.”

Cameron talked about isolating homes instead but Clegg responded and argued that nuclear power is too expensive and would come too late to address the country’s modern day energy crisis.


20:38: By Nick Ottens

Brown criticized both his colleagues, though particularly Cameron, for supposedly being “anti-American.” The Conservatives may want a “big society” at home, said Brown, but their policies will bring about a “little Britain” abroad. He, for one, had managed to get the Americans to promote the G20, apparently, and was altogether more of an internationalist. On the special relationship, Clegg opined that “it shouldn’t be a one way street.”


20:47: By Nick Ottens

To restore faith in Westminster, Clegg proposed extensive reform, including granting people the ability to sack corrupt parliamentarians and redrawing the country’s political map which currently leaves the Liberal Democrats with far fewer representatives than their nationwide support would suggest.

Brown argued in favor of an elected House of Lords while Cameron wanted to “cut the costs of politics” but not reform the system too greatly lest the country suffer from “permanent hung parliaments.”


20:53 By Nick Ottens

On the role of government, Cameron stressed that the state can’t be the answer to everything. He argued for personal responsibility and against punishing people for their success. “If you work hard and save, you actually don’t get the government behind you,” he complained. Brown retorted that if the Conservatives have their way, it is only the 3,000 richest of Britons who would benefit.


21:11: By Nick Ottens

The party leaders discussed pensions, which they all seemed in favor of raising. Cameron blamed Labour for spreading “lies” about the Conservatives taking away entitlements from the elderly. “You should not frighten people in an election campaign,” he said.

All three reiterated their positions on economic policy, with Cameron arguing against a “jobs tax” and Brown warning that without government support, thousands of job could be imperiled. “You are a risk to our economy,” he told Cameron.

Clegg proposed to split up banks, something that is also discussed in the United States. Brown disagreed. “You don’t solve your problems by making banks smaller.” Northern Rock was a relatively small business after all and that didn’t stop it from going under.


21:27: By Nick Ottens

David Cameron positioned the Conservatives as the only party willing to push for significant immigration reform. He criticized Labour for allowing mass immigration throughout its past years in office. Brown largely targeted Clegg though who, he warned, would grant amnesty to all illegal aliens.


21:34: By Nick Ottens

In his closing remarks, Brown reminded viewers that he was the one who had managed Britain through the recession. “Don’t do anything that puts the economic recovery at risk,” he said. The Conservatives would endanger the recovery and leave the country “isolated in Europe.” The liberals, on the other hand, would endanger Britain’s security by cutting Trident.

Cameron promised to “take the country forward” with “fresh, new leadership.” He mentioned traditional Conservative talking points: “keep our country safe,” “keep our borders secure” and maintain a strong national defense. “We have incredible days ahead of us,” he professed. “We can achieve anything if we pull together and built a big society.”

Clegg, naturally, stressed change. “Something really exciting is beginning to happen,” he believed. “People are beginning to hope that we can do things differently this time.” He urged voters not to let anyone convince them that it can’t be different. “It can.”

British Party Leaders Debate

Tonight ITV hosted the first televised debate between the leaders of Britain’s three major parties in the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his foremost contender, Conservative foreman David Cameron attacked each other repeatedly while Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg tried to present himself as a fresh alternative to the traditional powers, promising to put “people before politics.”

As the politicians answered questions from the audience, the economy quickly emerged as a major point of contention with Brown defending his government’s policies and Cameron leading the charge against them. The Labour leader opined that it would be wholly irresponsible to cut on expenditures this year. “Private investment can’t do it alone,” he warned. “Pull out the money and you will have less growth, less jobs and less businesses.”

The Conservatives have more faith in the private sector of course and Cameron properly sided with businessowners who are struggling to keep their companies afloat in difficult times. If entrepreneurs can cut on expenses, he wondered, why can’t the government?

As Brown and Cameron continued to blame one another for supposedly not sharing all of the facts, Clegg bluntly opined that the Treasury is running out of money and that certain measures are unavoidable. He argued for a tax on banks and declared that Britain should not be replacing its Trident nuclear system any time soon.

Earlier this week, over at Kings of War, Rob Dover dissected the parties’ manifestos, describing the Liberal Democrats’ as both “sensible” and “distinctive” on defense. They rule out the “like-for-like replacement” of the Trident system; support multilateral nuclear disarmament and intend to cancel the Eurofighter Tranche 3B, which is an upgrade of the Typhoon design. Yet according to Clegg tonight, the military is also “underpaid and under equipped” and the government must do better.

Brown boasted in response that under Labour rule, military expenditures have risen dramatically. Cameron was not convinced. “I think it’s madness,” he said, “when you’ve got soldiers deployed overseas not to invest in your territorial army.” He called for a fundamental defense review to determine “the shape of our army, our navy, our air force” in the face of twenty-first century challenges. As Clegg put it, “the threats to this country are changing.”

But Brown nor Cameron agreed with him on not upgrading the Trident system. The latter wished not to surrender Britain’s nuclear deterrent while Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. The former added the threat of North Korea while both their parties have found other ways to reduce costs.

The Conservatives want to cut defense spending with 25 percent and have a system of procurement that runs to time and budget. Labour seems mostly proud of past accomplishments which leaves its manifesto, in Dover’s words, “disappointing for the paucity of new ideas within it.”

The debate concluded with a discussion about health care. Again, Clegg seemed the only one to realize that drastic changes may be necessary although he refrained from elaborating on how exactly may be saved on the enormous expense that is the National Health Service. Brown and Cameron on the other hand both favored expanding it with the prime minister announcing specific proposals to improve care and Cameron priding himself on excluding the NHS from his many budget cuts. Brown begged to differ of course. “You can’t cut the deficits, cut taxes and provide extra money for the NHS,” he told him.

In his final remarks, Cameron advised voters not to accept what he described as the “repeated attempts to try to frighten you about the Conservative government.” He urged people to “chose hope over fear” and reiterated his commitment to “a bigger society.” After Brown threatened once more that the government can’t stop spending now lest the recession rage on, Cameron said that “the idea you have to go on wasting money to secure the recovery is simply wrong.”

As the country is likely to return a “hung parliament” in May, the role of the Liberal Democrats has suddenly become pivotal. Although Clegg leans more toward the right himself, his party appears to favor a coalition with Labour instead. He tried mainly to undermine Cameron therefore although the Liberal Democrats, he stressed, are a viable alternative to both major parties. Brown doesn’t seem to think that there are many voters to be won from the center for he almost exclusively targeted Cameron who, in turn, blamed Labour for today’s problems, leaving Clegg as an obvious outsider which is a status that may well turn out to appeal to Britons from across the political spectrum.