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Challenges Face Britain's New Government

  • Henry Ridgwell

Prime Minister David Cameron (r) and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Prime Minister David Cameron (r) and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

With no one party winning a majority in the recent British election, the right-of-center Conservatives and left-of-center Liberal Democrats have formed an unlikely coalition government. During the election campaign each party attacked the other's foreign policies on issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to relations with Europe. There are some doubts over whether the two parties can work together in the long term - but urgent problems at home will likely force agreement for now.

Hamid Karzai becomes the first foreign leader invited to Britain by its new prime minister. David Cameron hosted the Afghan president for talks just days after taking office. It's a clear indication of the new government's foreign priority.

With close to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, Mr Cameron has inherited a country at war. He has pledged to push ahead with the mission. But his Conservative party's partners in the coalition government - Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats - have historically had reservations about the human and financial cost of the war.

So could this lead to a split at the heart of government?
Former Conservative Member of Parliament Mattthew Parris - now a columnist for the "Times" newspaper - does not think so.

"My guess is that both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have private doubts about the wisdom of the Afghan enterprise and involvement and also about its likely chance of success - but I think they're both agreed that the British couldn't turn our backs on this unless or until the Americans do," said Mattthew Parris.

Even as Britain's coalition government finds it feet - its authority is being challenged by Iran. The West is drafting new UN sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, despite the deal Iran has struck with Turkey and Brazil to have its nuclear fuel enriched overseas. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accuses Britain and the West of living in the past and expecting other countries to obey its orders. The issue topped the agenda when Britain's new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, made his first overseas trip to Washington - and refused to take military action against Iran off the table.

"We've never ruled out supporting in the future military action, we are not calling for it," said William Hague. "It is precisely because we want to see this matter settled peacefully and rapidly that we call for the sanctions."

The former UK ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, says talk of military action is a calculated maneuver.

"It's more a point of threat at the moment," said Sir Jeremy Greenstock. "I think the British parliament and British public opinion would not be in favor of the UK joining military action but the government is the decider on these things and we'll have to see what transpires."

Faced with a financial crisis at home, Sir Jeremy Greenstock says the coalition government will not test its political marriage on complex foreign policy, according to Sir Jeremy Greenstock:

"I don't think it's a matter of party politics in the UK [Britain] that the UK contributes to solving global problems, to contributing to multilateral fora, to helping out where we can when we can, that won't change, that's not a party thing," he said. "This government will be tested on its handling of the economy and of our national debt and deficit."

The debt problems and ensuing riots in Greece have given Britain a stark reminder.
Other European countries are at risk as well and with its own record public debt, Britain wants to avoid a similar meltdown.

With a pro-US Foreign Secretary, analysts say Europe's current financial weakness will only reinforce Britain's strong bond with America - despite the traditional pro-European stance of the Liberal Democrats.

This new government has just begun its work. But in this coalition, both partners say they're prepared to compromise on deeply-held beliefs as they attempt to restore confidence in Britain's economy.