Prime Minister Gordon Brown is resigning Tuesday—earlier than expected—as Tory leader David Cameron gains the support of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Alex Massie on the unfolding crisis.
Monday was an extraordinary day in Great Britain, a day that began with signs that David Cameron could be moving into Downing Street on Tuesday, and ended in utter confusion. By the end of it all, the country's political leaders had tried, and failed, to form a government.
Since last week's election, only one thing seemed clear: Nick Clegg would not make a deal with a Labour Party led by Gordon Brown, preferring instead to talk to the party that won most votes and most seats: Cameron's Conservatives.
Having met for seven hours on Sunday, those negotiations continued most of Monday. Each side assured the press and the waiting public that talks aimed at forming a government were "going really well."
And then the bombshell at 5 p.m. in London: Gordon Brown, who remains the prime minister for now despite his crushing defeat, emerged from Downing Street to announce that the Liberals had asked for formal talks to begin with Labour.
But at lunchtime, it emerged that the Liberals had also held a secret meeting with Labour, as each party struggled to find a way around the impasse caused by the complicated parliamentary arithmetic that came out of this election.
By mid-afternoon, word came that there was now an "outline" agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems that Cameron and Clegg would present to their parliamentary caucuses. David Laws, one of Clegg's chief lieutenants, said that further clarification was needed on matters such as education, tax reform, and changing the electoral system. But all signs suggested that these were mere details and an agreement would be announced soon.
• The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown: Florida on the Thames • More writers weigh in on the British election. And then the bombshell at 5 p.m. in London: Gordon Brown, who remains the prime minister for now despite his crushing defeat, emerged from Downing Street to announce that the Liberals had asked for formal talks to begin with Labour. But the most explosive part of Brown’s statement was the concession that he could not realistically play a long-term role in any potential Labour-Liberal coalition. So Brown announced that he would resign as Labour leader—though remain as prime minister over the summer—until he could be replaced by the new Labour leader in the autumn.
This was a remarkable development, and an astonishing admission of defeat from a man famous for his tenacity. This, after all, was someone who had survived countless plots against his leadership by his own cabinet members.
Among the press corps, who waited outside Downing Street, there was evident disbelief that the prime minister was leaving voluntarily. "Did you hold a revolver to the head of the prime minister?" one hack asked Peter Mandelson, the business secretary and master of the political black arts, as he walked past.
It was a stunning about-face. Yet the numbers still barely add up. Any Labour-Liberal arrangement could not command a majority in the House of Commons and would require the support of almost every minor party to even hope of securing a majority. How such an arrangement can be squared with the Liberals' insistence on a "strong and stable" government that will be in a position to tackle Britain's appalling fiscal problems remains a mystery. What's more, Clegg would be negotiating a deal without knowing the identity of the next prime minister. This, too, is highly unusual.
Nevertheless, an auction is now under way as both Labour and the Conservatives make their best offer to the Liberals. Labour promises an immediate change to the voting system, even though there's no guarantee that any such bill can actually make it into law.
For their part, the Conservatives, who previously were adamantly opposed to electoral reform, offered the Lib Dems a referendum on the issue, trusting that this might be enough to satisfy Liberal demands. As William Hague, leader of the Tory negotiating team, put it, the Lib Dems have made it clear "that they are only prepared to enter a coalition agreement that will change our electoral system to the alternative vote system. In the interests of trying to create a stable and secure government we will go the extra mile and offer the Lib Dems a referendum on the alternative vote system."
At the end of the day in Britain, everything remained in a state of flux, with no one able to confidently predict what will happen next. The dangers to the parties are clear and present: For Labour, there is the difficulty of explaining why a party that was decisively rejected at the polls should remain in power. For the Liberals, there is a risk that they will be perceived as putting their own party’s interests before that of the country, during a time of crisis. Paradoxically, the Tories could yet be the beneficiaries of all this, even though the Liberals are playing hard to get. A Labour-Liberal deal could collapse, leaving the Tories to come through the middle and win a handsome majority at the next election—assuming it is fought under the existing election rules.
Meanwhile, the market and the voters watch and wait. Unless a new government is seated soon, it is unlikely that the verdict on either party will be positive.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.