LONDON // Tortuous negotiations in the search for a deal to give the UK a new government continued late into the night yesterday. After Thursday's election ended inconclusively, with the Conservatives the largest party but with not enough seats for a parliamentary majority, the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs remained the key to forming a new government.
Nick Clegg, their leader, spent most of the day locked away with his MPs and senior party figures, discussing whether they should enter into a formal or, perhaps, informal coalition with David Cameron, the Tory leader. Meanwhile, figures in the Labour Party - which is still technically in charge of the country, even though it now has only 258 MPs to the Conservatives' 306 - continued to promise immediate moves towards an electoral system based on proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats' most cherished ambition.
For his part, Mr Cameron has only offered an all-party inquiry into electoral reform: a carrot not regarded as tempting enough for most Liberal Democrats. The prime minister, Gordon Brown, had a 30-minute telephone conversation with Mr Clegg overnight but party officials insisted it was not a discussion on a possible Labour-Liberal Democratic Party coalition but, rather, on constitutional procedure regarding a hung parliament.
Mr Clegg's MPs remain deeply divided over whom they should support. On one hand, they represent a left-of-centre party that would feel deeply uneasy in an alliance with the right-of-centre Conservatives. On the other hand, few would thank them for backing Mr Brown's Labour Party, which got a drubbing at the polls and received two million fewer votes than the Conservatives. And a Labour-Liberal Democratic Party coalition would still not command enough seats in the House of Commons to reach the 326 figure required for an overall majority.
It would mean that, to keep Labour in power, the coalition would have to include other groupings, such as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists - a mixture unlikely to make for stable government for long. Liam Fox, the Conservatives' defence spokesman, warned Mr Clegg yesterday "not to hold the country to ransom" with demands for electoral reform. He said the Tories had won the right to see "the larger part of our manifesto" implemented, adding: "I don't think that it's reasonable, given the result of the election, where we did come clearly ahead of any other party, that an agenda would be applied that was very much against what a very large proportion voted for."
But Mr Clegg responded that, while he would approach Mr Cameron's offer to join the Conservatives in government in a constructive spirit, he would be "very much making the case for the four big priorities" identified by the Liberal Democrats - fairer taxes, help for disadvantaged children, a green economy and "fundamental political reform". Simon Hughes, one of the Liberal Democratic Party's most senior figures, also warned that his party was not prepared to "betray our principles" and that the Conservatives were far from natural allies.
"A radical party to its DNA is not going to stop being radical just because we have the best chance in 35 years of influencing and implementing what we believe in," he said, adding that he believed a deal might not be done until the Commons reconvened on Wednesday. However, Nick Robinson, the political editor of the BBC, said he felt a deal would be done in the next day or so. "My hunch is that a Tory-Lib Dem arrangement can be formed but not a coalition, which both parties would find too hard to stomach," he said.
"The reason is that both parties' leadership's have a shared interest in avoiding an early second election. The Liberal Democrats are shell shocked by the extent to which their dreams of an electoral breakthrough were smashed and have no money for another campaign. "The Tories are surprised by Labour's electoral resilience and do not fancy getting to grips with the deficit whilst constantly looking over their shoulders at the electorate."
All three leaders of the main political parties did get together yesterday in a gathering close to the prime minister's residence in Downing Street. But this was no show of unity amid the political turmoil. It was at a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org