Liberal Democrats close to doing a deal with Conservatives, despite rumblings of discontent.
Britain on brink of coalition government
LONDON // Two of Britain's main political parties appeared on the verge of announcing a deal last night to form a new, Conservative-led government. An announcement of an agreement, which the parties hoped to make before the financial markets open in London this morning, would mark the end of the Labour Party's 13-year run in office and sound the political death knell for the prime minister, Gordon Brown.
Discussions between the Conservatives, who won 306 seats out of the 650 in the House of Commons, and the Liberal Democrats, who won 57, went on through the night on Saturday and all day yesterday. Both David Cameron, the Tory leader, and Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem counterpart, used the word "constructive" to describe the negotiations. If the two parties do go into a formal coalition - rather than the Lib Dems agreeing not to oppose a minority Conservative government in certain key areas - it will be the first time the UK has been so governed in peacetime since the 1930s.
But there were rank-and-file rumblings of discontent from both parties over the prospects of such a coalition, not least because the Conservatives are a right-of-centre grouping while the Lib Dems are to the left. Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, warned the Tories yesterday that they must give ground on the issue of voting reform if they want to strike a deal on the formation of a new government. Although the Conservatives have promised an all-party inquiry into the Lib Dems' cherished ambition of introducing proportional representation, most Tories, including Mr Cameron, remain committed to the existing first-past-the-post system.
Lord Ashdown said the promise of an inquiry would not satisfy most Lib Dems and warned that there was "a mountain to climb" before any deal could be done. "I don't believe that anybody can now establish a new government who is deaf to the calls from the British people for reform to our political system and part of that is electoral reform," Lord Ashdown told the BBC. William Hague, the Conservative's foreign affairs spokesman, appeared optimistic as he led his party's negotiators into a third round of discussions over a deal yesterday afternoon.
"We're very conscious of the need to provide the country with a new stable and legitimate government as soon as possible," he said. The meetings Friday and Saturday "were both very constructive and very respectful of each other's positions. So we're going into these negotiations very much in that spirit today". However, Lord (Michael) Heseltine, a former Conservative deputy prime minister, summed up the feelings of many Tory backbenchers and party workers when he said there was no need for Mr Cameron to give ground to the Lib Dems on electoral reform.
"I don't think for a minute that David Cameron will concede change to the voting system and I don't think that he needs to," he said in a TV interview. "His position is much stronger than I think the commentators give credit for. He is going to be prime minister, he controls the parliamentary programme and he controls the electoral timetable." For his part, Mr Brown, who remains prime minister until a viable coalition is formed, was clinging to the hope the talks between the other two parties would break down and that Labour, which won 258 seats on Thursday, might yet be able to continue to govern by bringing in the Lib Dems plus the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties.
In a message to party workers, he said: "The past few days have seen us enter a political landscape not considered possible a few short weeks ago, with the outcome of the election leading to no single party able to form a majority government. My duty as prime minister has been to seek to resolve this situation. My resolve has not, and will not, change." Mr Brown pledged to "fight for the people of this country - to secure the recovery, to protect their livelihoods and to continue to fight for a future fair for all".
Most political observers believe, however, that any announcement of an agreement between the Tories and Lib Dems will inevitably mark the end of Mr Brown's tenure as leader of the Labour Party. Late yesterday, Mr Brown returned to the prime minister's official residence in Downing Street from his home in his Scottish constituency. Very few expected his current stay in No 10 to be a very long one.