British Parties Jockey to Form Governing Alliance
Published: May 7, 2010
LONDON — The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats began intensive talks on Friday to try to fashion an unlikely marriage that would allow them to form a government quickly and reassure jittery financial markets after an election that denied any party a clear majority.
An Uncertain and Difficult Road Ahead in London (May 8, 2010)
Times Topics: Gordon Brown | David Cameron | Nick Clegg
Matt Dunham/Associated Press
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the talks between the parties had been “constructive,” and urged quick action as negotiations raced to conclude before the markets open Monday. The two parties are far apart on some policy issues, and many Conservatives balk at the Liberal Democrats’ demand to change Britain’s current electoral system. But both parties suggested a compromise could be struck.
“We must sort things out, as quickly as possible, for the good of the country,” Mr. Cameron said, and added: “The national interest is clear: the world is looking to Britain for decisive action.”
On Friday morning, Mr. Cameron called Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, and made what he called “a big, open and comprehensive offer,” in the face of voters’ rejection of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, which has governed Britain for 13 years.
The terms of the deal could involve a formal coalition or a looser pact involving the Liberal Democrats remaining on the opposition benches, but backing a minority Conservative government tied to a raft of policy commitments to the smaller party.
But before any of the details could be thrashed out, Britain was struggling to adjust to a new political landscape that seemed filled with uncertainties, as well as significant risks. There is a prospect of a weak and potentially unstable alliance in power, just when decisive government is most needed to deal with a battered economy and a pervasive disillusionment with politicians that grew out of last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal and seeped deep into the election campaign.
There has been no minority government in Britain since the 1970s, and no formal governing coalition since World War II, when Winston Churchill headed a wartime coalition that included the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals. The turmoil in Greece and the brief 1,000-point plunge on Wall Street on Thursday have fostered popular anxieties about the fragile state of the British economy and the possibility that Britain could easily follow Greece down the road to economic meltdown.
Mr. Cameron sought to address that mood when he spoke Friday of the need for “a strong, stable, decisive government” that could tackle the country’s huge budget deficit “and prevent the economic catastrophe that would result from putting off the difficult and urgent action that needs to be taken.”
Mr. Cameron wasted no time, making a 15-minute call to Mr. Clegg as the final vote tally confirmed that the Conservatives, though the largest party in the new Parliament, had fallen short of a majority by a margin of 20 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Labour finished in a poor second place, and appeared to have braced itself for being ousted from power in the new alignment.
Mr. Clegg said he was willing to give the Conservative Party a chance to prove that “it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest” — political code for Conservative willingness to pay for the Liberal Democrats’ support in terms of policy changes and possibly even cabinet seats.
He singled out what has been a priority issue for the Liberal Democrats for decades, the so-called “first-past-the-post” or “winner-takes-all” voting system, like that used in most American elections. Such a system awards seats in disproportionate numbers to bigger parties while penalizing smaller parties that amass a significant vote share but few seats.
Mr. Clegg did not specify the voting system the Liberal Democrats have long advocated, one based on proportional representation, which is designed to assign seats in proportion to vote share. That flexibility could open the door to a deal with Conservatives, who have long balked at any radical change to the system.
And Mr. Cameron later went further than he has done before to meet the smaller Liberal Democrat Party’s concerns on the issue, to the extent of referring to Britain’s “broken political system,” a phrase borrowed from Mr. Clegg’s election playbook.
Mr. Cameron suggested that the Conservatives would be prepared to offer changes that have long been on their own wish list, involving a redistricting of electoral constituencies to ensure that “all seats should be of equal size, so that votes can have equal value in the first-past-the-post system.”
The Conservatives, traditionally strong in rural and suburban seats that tend to have higher numbers of voters than the mainly urban seats that are Labour’s backbone, have complained for decades that the electoral system discriminates against them.
Mr. Cameron, in his Friday remarks, suggested that any changes in the system be referred to a parliamentary committee, a proposal that that some disgruntled Liberal Democrats said sounded like a plan to put changes to the political system on the back burner.
With one seat vacant because of a voting postponement caused by the death of a candidate, the results gave the Conservatives 306 seats, Labour 258, the Liberal Democrats 57, and an array of smaller parties 28 seats. In the popular vote, the Conservatives took 36.1 percent of the votes, Labour 29.1 percent, and the Liberal Democrats 23 percent. The turnout was 65 percent, up 4 percentage points since the last election in 2005.
The back-and-forth between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had the effect, at least for now, of sidelining Mr. Brown, who had hoped to press for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But Mr. Clegg turned first to the Conservatives, after vowing on the campaign trail not to give “squatters’ rights” to a discredited Mr. Brown if Labour was defeated at the polls.
On Friday, Mr. Brown waited until after Mr. Clegg had signaled his preference for a deal with the Conservatives before emerging from Downing Street to make a statement that was shorn of his trademark political combativeness, as though he realized that he had been outflanked by the two other parties, and perhaps consigned to an early exit from No. 10.
He said that he “completely” understood Mr. Clegg’s opening to the Conservatives, and encouraged the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders to take “as much time as they see necessary” for their talks.
But he added a corollary that amounted to a last-ditch pitch for a renewed lease on power. Should the discussions between Mr. Clegg and Mr. Cameron “come to nothing,” Mr. Brown said, he would be willing to meet Mr. Clegg to discuss matters of common interest, including a shift to a fairer voting system — an issue Labour embraced in the election campaign as its own, anticipating its value as a lifeline in negotiations for a coalition.
Only if those talks ended in failure, he said, would he make a move, meeting with “any of the party leaders” to see what they could do to ensure that the country continued to have stable government.