Loss of Treasury minister ends short honeymoon for Britain’s coalition government

By Sylvia Hui, AP
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Expenses scandal troubles fledgling UK coalition

LONDON — After only 18 days at the helm, Britain’s young coalition government has lost a top finance minister to an expenses scandal just as it struggles to slash a record budget deficit and restore public trust in politics.

The abrupt resignation of David Laws, the deputy Treasury chief, reduced confidence in Prime Minister David Cameron’s ability to tackle the nation’s economic woes and improve governmental transparency — goals Cameron has highlighted as his twin priorities.

It also introduced more uncertainty into preparations for the emergency budget expected in June that will detail sweeping plans to cut Britain’s deficit, which is running at close to 12 percent of gross domestic productThat’s just behind Greece’s level of 13.5 percent of GDP, a debt load that has triggered a sovereign debt crisis across Europe.

“Coalition in turmoil,” the Observer newspaper said on its front page Sunday, describing Law’s departure as a “sudden and dramatic end to the brief honeymoon” enjoyed by coalition partners Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.

“It won’t break the coalition, but it probably makes life more difficult,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds.

“It’s a real shame because he probably would have smoothed the path somewhat,” she said. “He’s a conservative liberal speaking the language of both parties.”

Laws was forced to quit Saturday after the Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed he had broken parliamentary rules in claiming tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) in taxpayer money to pay rent to his boyfriend. Laws said he wanted to take responsibility for wrongdoing as well as deal with the public exposure of his sexuality.

The Liberal Democrat’s job was to slash public spending, and together with Treasury chief George Osborne he announced a 6 billion pound ($8.9 billion) package of cuts. A successful former investment banker and a highly regarded economist, the 44-year-old Laws was widely praised for his start at the Treasury.

He was replaced Saturday by Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, 38, who has no experience in public finance.

Laws’ departure was particularly troubling for Cameron’s fledgling coalition because he was seen as a key player in cobbling together the power-sharing deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats after the May 6 national election produced no clear winner.

Although Cameron and Clegg made a point of setting aside their differences to make Britain’s first coalition government in seven decades work, many members in both parties remain suspicious of their new partners. Laws was regarded as a bridge between the factions.

His resignation was also a reminder that last year’s expenses scandal is still haunting British politics.

Cameron had promised a new, more transparent government that does not tolerate politicians’ misconduct after hundreds of lawmakers from all parties used taxpayers’ money to fund everything from swanky second homes to moat cleaning.

The report exposing Laws’ expenses claims came just hours after Cameron recorded a podcast pledging that “no one will ever be so free and easy with public money again.”

Five lawmakers charged with false accounting face jail terms, and scores of others were either forced to resign or decided not to run for office again. Of the 650 seats in Parliament, some 226 lawmakers are new since the May 6 election.

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