Ministers' gaffes show tensions in British coalition

LONDON Wed Dec 22, 2010 2:53pm EST

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) listens as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaks during their joint news conference at number 10 Downing Street in London December 21, 2010. REUTERS/Carl De Souza/pool

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) listens as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaks during their joint news conference at number 10 Downing Street in London December 21, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Carl De Souza/pool

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LONDON (Reuters) - Tape recordings of ministers from Britain's junior coalition partners criticizing cabinet policy added to strains on the government on Wednesday, a day after the business secretary was stripped of some powers for loose talk.

Prime Minister David Cameron, whose center-right Conservatives have ruled with the smaller, left-leaning Liberal Democrats since May, said his coalition was still viable despite the recordings made by journalists for the Daily Telegraph.

Cameron also defended his decision to keep Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable in the government while stripping him of authority over regulating the media sector on Tuesday.

Cable, one of the leading Lib Dems in the cabinet, was taped by the Telegraph saying he was "declaring war" on News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch, who is seeking government approval for a merger deal. Some commentators said Cable would have been fired for the remarks if he were a Conservative.

The Telegraph published more excerpts on Wednesday from recordings it said were made by its reporters posing as Lib Dem voters meeting with politicians.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore was recorded describing the government's plans to scrap child benefit for higher taxpayers as "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do." Ed Davey, a business minister, said proposed changes to housing benefit would "put people below the breadline."

Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg put on a united front, saying the coalition was still sound.

"Of course, coalitions do have their difficulties, coalitions do have tensions, even contradictions, that is a fact," Cameron told reporters in Birmingham, central England.

But he said lawmakers were putting aside differences to work together. On his decision over Cable, he said: "I acted swiftly, and I think I acted correctly."

Clegg told Sky News: "I don't think anyone should be surprised by the reports of what other ministers have said that there are differences of opinion in a coalition as there are indeed in all governments."

The Lib Dems' poll ratings have slumped after their leadership, including Cable and other ministers, backed higher tuition fees for students, breaking a pre-election pledge.

"CAR CRASH"

Moore said on the Telegraph tape that decision had been a "car crash" and deeply damaging to the party.

Lib Dem member of parliament Tim Farron said while the paper's latest disclosures showed clear differences, they were not a problem for the government.

"In some ways it's helpful. We've been protesting for the last eight months that Liberal Democrats have a mind of our own, a distinct identity," Farron told BBC radio.

Cable's retention appears to be an effort to keep the lid on disquiet from grassroots members of the left-leaning party who are concerned about the coalition. Conservative member of parliament Christopher Chope said Cable should go.

"The question is how much longer can the coalition put up with having him as a lame duck," he told BBC radio. "When we get into the new year, the prime minister will have to assess whether propping up the Liberal Democrats is in the long-term best interests of the Conservative Party and the country."

(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Peter Graff)

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