Cameron takes heat at Games
LONDON — The public’s verdict was clear: Prime Minister David Cameron and Treasury chief George Osborne faced a chorus of boos at London’s Paralympic Games — a rare flash of hostility toward their belief that a sharp austerity drive is the best way to repair Britain’s debt-ravaged economy.
Anger is mounting amid a grueling four-year program of cuts to public sector jobs and welfare payments, which Osborne has conceded will need to be extended by at least two years and which some opponents worry has fueled Britain’s slump into its first recession since 2009.
Seeking to win back support and boost his prospects before the 2015 national election, Cameron on Tuesday made the first major overhaul of his Cabinet and 100-strong ministerial team since taking office in 2010.
While Cameron left most senior allies in place, he sought to sharpen his economic message by promoting a crop of young fiscal conservatives, and looked to exploit the success of the Olympic Games in appointing Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London organizing committee, as a new finance minister.
Osborne— architect of the unpopular $130 billion in budget trimming — gave an uncomfortable smile late Monday as he faced loud heckles at a Paralympic Games medal ceremony. Cameron, meanwhile, heard both boos and cheers when his image was shown on a jumbo screen inside the Aquatics Center.
The outbursts were rare amid the upbeat mood of Britain’s summer of sports but underscored resentment over cuts to welfare payments, particularly a program assessing whether those who receive disability payments should continue to be eligible.
Those checks are being carried out by ATOS, the lead technology company for the Olympics and Paralympics.
“When people were first told that there would be cuts to benefits and tax rises over the next five years, they seemed to accept it. Now that those cuts are starting to bite, people are beginning to complain,” said Victoria Honeyman, an expert on British politics at the University of Leeds.
In another indication of the country’s mood, Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown — the former Labour Party leader who was hugely unpopular while in office and defeated in the May 2010 election — was cheered during an appearance at the Paralympics.
Cameron’s Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government after the inconclusive election and pledged to cut Britain’s debts, which had piled up amid the global financial crisis and costly banking bailouts.
Osborne has acknowledged that he is a lightning rod for public dissent. “In a difficult economic environment, it is not surprising that the chancellor is not the most popular member of the government,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
However, Cameron backed his friend and longtime ally by keeping him in his post — signaling that the U.K. won’t ease up its austerity program, as some including the International Monetary Fund have urged.
The staffing shifts do offer hints of change on other issues.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt lost his post after criticism of his close ties to James Murdoch, media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s son. Maria Miller, a junior welfare minister and previously an advertising executive, takes on the task of implementing new regulation in the wake of Britain’s phone hacking scandal — which erupted in a Murdoch tabloid.
Hunt becomes Health Secretary, though campaigners have already raised concerns. In his previous job, he questioned a section of the Olympic Games opening ceremony which hailed the achievements of the publicly funded health care system.
Justine Greening, a fierce opponent of expanding London’s Heathrow Airport, was switched from Transport Secretary to Britain’s aid ministry — a move that could let the government authorize building a third runway.
Advocates insist a new runway is needed because British business is being hampered by a lack of flights to China and many developing economies. Those opposed say the impact would be severe on communities close to Heathrow, including Greening’s Parliamentary district.
Sayeeda Warsi becomes a member of Foreign Secretary William Hague’s team. Warsi, the first female Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet, has stirred controversy by attacking Pakistan over women’s rights and in claiming that prejudice against Muslims was pervasive in British society.
Veteran legislator Ken Clarke, 72, leaves his job as Justice Secretary. His replacement, Chris Grayling, is likely to take a tougher line on penal policy.
To take his new economic role, Deighton will be appointed a Conservative member of the House of Lords and begin work next year, once he has completed Olympic and Paralympic duties.
Liberal Democrat David Laws, a staunch supporter of the austerity program, returned with a joint role in the education department and Cabinet Office, which handles government administration.
Laws quit in 2010 after he admitted claiming taxpayers’ money to pay rent to his long-term partner, which is banned under Parliamentary rules.
Cameron hopes the moves will kick-start a government that has been humbled in recent months by policy reversals. A series of planned tax rises were ditched amid public dissent and opposition from his own party nixed Cameron’s pledge to transform Britain’s unelected, 700-year-old House of Lords into a mainly elected 462-seat chamber by 2025.
Associated Press writer Bob Barr contributed to this report.
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