LONDON — Former rivals David Cameron and Nick Clegg hailed their new coalition government as the coming of a new era in British politics on Wednesday, glossing over policy differences but pledging to tackle the country’s most pressing problem — the looming deficit.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders stood in Downing Street’s sun-dappled garden and pledged that their partnership was united by common purpose and will survive for a full five-year term. The camaraderie was marred by a few awkward moments, however, including a reporter’s question about a jibe Cameron made years ago.
Reminded that he had once been asked “What’s your favourite joke” and answered “Nick Clegg,” Cameron responded with an exaggerated grimace while Clegg asked, “did you really say that?” — and pretended to walk away from the podium.
“We’re all going to have things that we said thrown back at us,” Cameron said.
The alliance was necessary because no party won a majority of parliamentary seats in last week’s national vote. Britons struggling to make ends meet during a punishing recession have been enraged at politicians of all stripes after a damaging lawmakers’ expense scandal last year.
Once described as sandal-wearing hippie academics, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have emerged from the political fringe to the top rung of government. The party is expected to gain five Cabinet seats and more than a dozen junior government roles in what will be one of the least experienced governments since Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a landslide victory in 1997.
“Working together, I know we can take the country through those difficult decisions to better times ahead,” Cameron said. “But today we are not just announcing a new government, and new ministers. We are announcing a new politics.”
Cameron said the coalition agreement commits the next government to a significantly accelerated reduction in the budget deficit, to cut 6 billion pounds ($8.9 billion) of government waste and to stop an increase in the national insurance tax.
Cameron wrote supporters that the agreement allows Conservatives to move forward on school and welfare reform and rejects Liberal Democrat pledges to get rid of nuclear submarines, offer amnesty to illegal immigrants or handover any additional powers to the European Union.
Liberal Democrat Vince Cable received a key business brief — an appointment that may spark nervousness in the financial sector. An ex-economist for Royal Dutch Shell, Cable is a fierce critic of banking practices and has demanded action to spur lending.
One of the first calls of congratulation to the new prime minister came from President Barack Obama, an acknowledgment of Britain’s most important bilateral relationship. Obama invited Cameron to visit Washington this summer.
Both Cameron and Clegg have acknowledged that Labour under Blair was too closely tied to Washington’s interests. Both men back the Afghanistan mission, but Cameron hopes to withdraw British troops within five years. Clegg has said he’s uneasy at a rising death toll. Leaner coffers may also mean less money to enter foreign-led military operations.