Tensions in British coalition spill over in Cabinet meeting

Reuters, LONDON

Thu, May 05, 2011 - Page 6

British Energy Secretary Chris Huhne confronted British Prime Minister David Cameron over electoral reform in a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, exposing tensions over an issue that divides the coalition government.

Campaigning for and against a switch to the alternative vote (AV) balloting system for parliamentary in a referendum today has become bitter, stoking tensions between Huhne’s pro-AV Liberal Democrat party and their larger, anti-AV Conservative coalition partners.

The coalition, the first in Britain since 1945, took power in May last year and has pledged to tame Britain’s budget deficit. Markets are concerned that tensions over AV could destabilize the alliance and jeopardize austerity measures.

In a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Huhne asked Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, both Conservatives, to disassociate themselves from campaign material he feels unfairly targets Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, a Lib Dem source said.

The source said Osborne did not deny his involvement in them on two occasions, but had no details about Cameron’s response.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman said Cameron retained confidence in Huhne as a minister, but declined further comment.

Much of the “No to AV” campaign focuses on what some see as Clegg’s broken promises, policies he has had to water down or abandon in compromises the Lib Dems say were necessary to function as the junior partner in the coalition government.

“To attack your political colleagues in a coalition and Nick Clegg in particular for accepting the compromises necessary to allow the Conservatives to implement some of its policies is absurdly short sighted and outrageous,” Huhne said in the Guardian newspaper on Monday.

A plebiscite on AV was a key concession won by the Lib Dems in return for joining the Conservatives in coalition government after last year’s general election produced no clear winner.

Meanwhile, public support for a change in the voting system is falling away, a poll showed on Tuesday. A ComRes poll for the Independent showed 66 percent of Britons are against adopting the AV system versus 34 who want change.

Last week, ComRes found that 40 percent of respondents will vote in favor of AV and 60 percent will back the current first-past-the-post system.