As the couple stepped out through the French windows and past trailing wisteria to the sun-flecked lawn where their guests awaited on gilded chairs, someone said in a stage whisper, "It's just like a wedding." And so it was: love or at any rate, amity hung in the scented air of the Downing Street garden as Prime Minister David Cameron and his new political paramour, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, on Wednesday held their first joint press conference since taking office. There were even anecdotes embarrassing enough to (dis)grace any best man's speech. Did Cameron regret his past answer to the question "What is your favorite joke?" a journalist asked. Cameron's riposte, amusing at the time and even more so with the benefit of hindsight, had been "Nick Clegg."
That revelation clearly news to Clegg may have put the first dent in the duo's shiny new relationship, but they'll face much worse as they attempt to meld their two parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats until 24 hours earlier vigorous opponents into a seamless entity called the "Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition." At least, that's the title of the coalition as it appears on the parties' May 11 agreement setting out the basis under which they intend to jointly govern. But at Wednesday's press conference, Cameron routinely referred to the "Liberal Democrat Conservative coalition." Little inconsistencies like this, and bigger matters like the division of labor between the PM and DPM, are still to be ironed out. Another irreverent question from a reporter hinted at the underlying seriousness of establishing clarity on such matters quickly: "If the phone rings at 3 in the morning, will you both answer it?"
What already seemed clear, however, was a chemistry between the two and a shared excitement about their new project, "an administration," said Cameron, "united behind three key principles: freedom, fairness and responsibility." He continued, "Later today, I will be chairing the first meeting of the National Security Council, and Nick will be at my side. There are five Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State working hand in hand with their Conservative colleagues."
So far, so raindrops on roses. It's hard to imagine the hard-line Euroskeptics on the right of Cameron's party working hand in hand with the Europhiles on the left of Clegg's, despite an eight-point section of the coalition agreement that attempts to identify and head off areas of potential disagreement on Europe, including a commitment that "Britain will not join or prepare to join the euro in this Parliament."
A surer way to avoid clashes would have been to settle for a looser working partnership, a so-called confidence and supply agreement, in which the Lib Dems would have supported the Conservatives on key issues but not joined the government. Cameron revealed that he and Clegg discussed such an arrangement but rejected it as "so uninspiring."
Instead, Conservatives and Lib Dems aim to move forward in lockstep to tackle Britain's debt crisis. Leadership in that key area falls to the new Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, at 39 Britain's youngest Finance Minister in more than 100 years. He may look for advice to the Lib Dem éminence grise, Vince Cable, the new Business Secretary. Other prominent members of the new government include William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party and noted Euroskeptic, as Foreign Secretary; and the only prominent senior woman as yet, Home Secretary Theresa May, a former chairwoman of the Conservatives who memorably warned her colleagues that they needed to shed the "nasty party" label.
As Cameron gazed into Clegg's eyes, the days of the nasty party seemed long gone indeed. "This is what new politics looks like," said Clegg, stretching out his arms as if to embrace the whole garden and all the people in it, even the journalists. The honeymoon can't last forever, but for now it's hard not to wish the happy couple the best of British.