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Lib Dems say UK coalition safe after paper sting

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Liberal Democrats said they were fully behind the coalition after four more of their ministers were taped slating their Conservative partners in government.

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

The disclosures have exacerbated tensions within the coalition and inside the two parties as parliamentarians slowly come to terms with adapting from decades of adversarial politics and learn to cooperate with their former opponents.

While the comments have embarrassed both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives who lead the coalition, analysts said there was little chance of them undermining the government.

The most damaging extracts were published Tuesday which led to senior Lib Dem and Business Secretary Vince Cable being stripped of some regulatory powers after saying he was “declaring war” on News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch.

Lib Dem lawmakers were recorded criticizing senior Conservatives by undercover reporters posing as local voters in a sting operation for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The paper said Thursday it had recorded David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, criticizing finance minister George Osborne while local government minister Andrew Stunell cast doubt on the sincerity of Prime Minister David Cameron.

“George Osborne has the capacity to get up one’s nose, doesn’t he?” Heath was quoted as saying. “I mean, what I think is, some of them just have no experience of how ordinary people live, and that’s what worries me.”

Stunell reportedly said he did not know where to place Cameron on the “sincerity monitor” while junior health minister Paul Burstow was said to have commented: “I don’t want you to trust David Cameron ... in the sense you believe he’s suddenly become a cuddly Liberal. Well, he hasn’t.”

The damage was unlikely to be long-lasting though. Mark Wickham-Jones, a politics professor at Bristol University, said Britons would judge the coalition on results.

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“Members of the Liberal Democrats and the public are going to judge the coalition on results and not gossip,” he said.

“My sense is that they’ll just weather this.”


The left-leaning Lib Dems have seen their support plummet since they joined Britain’s first coalition government since World War Two which has since pushed ahead with deep spending cuts as part of a five-year austerity plan.

The Lib Dems have been singled out for criticism by many who oppose the cuts as they had pledged to oppose many of them while they were in opposition.

Labor leader Ed Miliband has sought to make political capital from the Telegraph’s revelations, saying it showed that the Liberal Democrats were just passengers in a “sham” coalition, propping up the Conservative-led administration.

However, whilst acknowledging the embarrassment their comments have caused, the Lib Dem lawmakers insist there is no threat to the government.

“What I was trying to say ... was when you join a coalition you don’t merge into a single party, you still retain the separate identities,” Burstow told BBC TV, adding he did trust the prime minister and had meant no offence.

“We are two parties coming together in a coalition. That’s something we’re not used to in this country.”

Cameron has dismissed any suggestion of lasting damage and one senior Conservative, Oliver Letwin, Cameron’s policy chief, said the two parties shared much common ground.

“There are very strong bonds now. We have come to trust one another,” Letwin said in an interview with the Guardian.

Editing by Jon Hemming