Britain's Coalition Government Starts On Priorities

British Prime Minister David Cameron holds his first cabinet meeting Thursday. Improving the economy is one of the government's priorities. The combination of the Conservatives and smaller Liberal Democrats is Britain's first coalition government in 65 years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep on the Grand Trunk Road, an ancient highway, where we're talking with young people in India and Pakistan. We'll have more this hour.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now to the new British prime minister, already hard at work. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

This morning, David Cameron presided over the inaugural Cabinet meeting of the new coalition government. Cutting Britain's huge deficit is the major task at hand. And to prove it, all ministers agreed to take a 5 percent pay cut. They've also promised an emergency budget within 50 days. It may take longer than that for Britain to adjust to its first coalition government since World War II. Yesterday, Cameron answered questions alongside his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.

NPR's Rob Gifford has been tracking the new government from London. Good morning, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Morning, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, David Cameron said in that news conference yesterday that this coalition could mark what he called a seismic shift in British politics. Is that an exaggeration, or is this really marking that big a change in the way politics is done in Britain?

GIFFORD: I'm not sure it is an exaggeration, actually. I think if you look at the newspapers this morning, they're talking about a very British revolution. It is quite extraordinary what happened. They're rewriting the rule book in Westminster - yesterday, that news conference, the two of them standing there together as coalition partners. I mean, this is the Conservative Party, the party of Margaret Thatcher. The party that dominated 20th century politics on the right of center, and now it's dominating the middle ground with a previously slightly left-of-center party. There are really two questions now to look at. The first is: Can it last? And the second, really, is yes: Is there ever any going back from this?

NEARY: Well, how have we seen this new approach playing out so far, just in terms of policies announced?

GIFFORD: Well, it's early days, but yesterday was a whirlwind of announcements, in addition to that news conference. They put together an initial document of what they're going to do. Of course, the main thing is the economy, this massive $240 billion deficit that Britain has. They announced their first $9 billion worth of cuts. The Liberal Democrats have given ground on some of their issues - immigration and defense. The Conservatives have compromised, too, it seems, on things like voting reform and tax cuts. So it's all been very friendly and very cooperative in terms of what they've announced so far, but, of course, the implementation could be a different thing altogether.

NEARY: And where's the Labour Party left in all this?

GIFFORD: Again, less than two days after Gordon Brown stepped down, the Labour Party has really been forgotten because of the magnitude of what's been going on. But what happened at the end of yesterday was that one leading Labour ex-minister - the ex-foreign minister, in fact, David Miliband - stepped forward to stand as leader of the Labour Party to replace Gordon Brown. But I think the Labour Party must be thinking my goodness me, what on earth is going on here? Where are we going to find ourselves? How are we going to be able to compete with that in the future? And this has really, really shaken things up here in Britain.

NEARY: And are they surprised to be hearing David Cameron thought of as a revolutionary in politics?

GIFFORD: Absolutely. I mean, the cliche about David Cameron, the stereotype is that he's just a complete creature of the establishment, of the Conservative establishment. He went to Eton, the exclusive private boys' school. He went to Oxford. And although he has modernized the Conservative Party, I think everybody thought he was just going to be, you know, a little bit like another conservative in government. Events and, of course, the result of the election have forced him into a new situation.

And as he said at the news conference yesterday, he said we looked at it. We looked at whether we could be a minority government and we just thought, you know, that's just not going to work. That's not what I came into politics to do. I wanted to come into politics to make a difference and make a change. I talked to Mr. Clegg. We looked at each other and we said: Let's do it. Let's try it. And it really is, if it works, it is a revolutionary thing in some ways here in Britain, and a huge surprise to everyone.

NEARY: Well, it'll certainly be interesting watch.

NPR's Rob Gifford, in London. Thanks so much.

GIFFORD: Thank you very much, Lynn.

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