LONDON — Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted Wednesday his party was committed to Britain’s coalition government — despite secretly recorded tapes in which ministers from his group criticize policy and vow to block Rupert Murdoch’s plans to expand his media empire.
Business Secretary Vince Cable, a key Clegg ally and member of the Liberal Democrats, was stripped of responsibility for media competition issues Tuesday after he was recorded boasting to undercover reporters that he had declared war on Murdoch.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper Wednesday published details of other conversations between leading Liberal Democrats and its undercover staff in which three ministers condemned a decision to scrap child benefit payments for better-off families.
Opponents said the remarks had exposed divisions within Britain’s first governing coalition since the Second World War. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democrats sealed an unlikely pact in the aftermath of an inconclusive national election in May, in which no one party secured a majority.
“I don’t think we should be surprised about the reports of what other ministers have said, that there are differences of opinion in a coalition, as there are indeed in all governments,” Clegg said. “The most important thing is that we get on and work together in the coalition government to fix the mess that we have inherited.”
Cable was quoted Tuesday as telling the Daily Telegraph that he would attempt to bring down the coalition if he is forced to dilute or abandon cherished policy ideas.
He has previously been strongly critical of many economic policies his government now endorses, and is vocal in his calls for banks to restrict the size of bonuses handed to staff.
“If they push me too far then I can walk out of the government and bring the government down,” Cable was quoted as telling the reporters.
However, Cable’s comments on Murdoch and his then-looming decision on News Corp.’s US$11.5-billion offer to acquire full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB were not initially published by the Telegraph.
Cable had been responsible for deciding if the deal should be referred to the Competition Commission, and ultimately if the takeover can go ahead. Cameron said that decision and all other work on media ownership issues will instead pass to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
“I have declared war on Mr. Murdoch and I think we are going to win,” Cable was quoted as telling the reporters.
His comments were first reported by the BBC on Tuesday afternoon, after it said it had received a leak of the Telegraph’s tape.
Critics claimed that the Telegraph — which is opposed to its rival News Corp., owner of the Times of London, gaining further dominance in the British media sector — had declined to use the comments as it wanted Cable, seen as more likely to oppose the deal, to continue to adjudicate.
In a statement, the newspaper said the claim was “utter nonsense,” and insisted it had planned to spread the content from the tape over several days worth of stories.
Comments reported Wednesday disclosed that Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, Business Minister Ed Davey and Pensions Minister Steve Webb had all aired their personal concerns about planned cuts to welfare payments.
Main opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband said the discord showed the Liberal Democrats had little say over government policy. He described Clegg’s party as passengers, “not in the front seat, not even in the back seat of the car, but passengers who have got themselves locked in the boot (trunk).”