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.