Britain's Conservatives in power pact talks after poll deadlock

8th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's opposition Conservatives offered a "comprehensive" power-sharing deal to the third-placed Liberal Democrat party Friday after a knife-edge election left the kingdom in political limbo.

Conservative negotiators held initial talks with senior Lib Dems after winning most seats from Thursday's general election, but falling short of an overall majority.

Conservative leader David Cameron earlier spoke with Lib Dem chief Nick Clegg after the Tories failed to win enough seats to immediately oust Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party, who have been in office for 13 years.

"I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems," Cameron told a press conference.

"I hope we can reach agreement quickly," he added, while leaving open the possibility of a minority Conservative government, relying on support from smaller parties to pass legislation on an ad hoc basis.

Final results showed the Conservatives had 306 lawmakers compared to 258 for Labour and 57 for the Liberal Democrats, leaving the Tories short of the 326 seats needed to govern unaided in parliament's 650-seat lower House of Commons.

It is the first hung parliament in Britain since 1974.

In these circumstances, the incumbent prime minister has the right to stay on in office, possibly seeking coalition partners, but Brown accepted Clegg's decision to open himself to talks with Cameron first.

Cameron and Clegg would be "entitled to take as much time as they feel necessary", Brown said.

But failing those talks, he was open to negotiation with the Lib Dems, notably offering immediate legislation on their key policy of electoral reform.

"Clearly should the discussions between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg come to nothing then I would of course be prepared to discuss with Mr. Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties," he said.

Late Friday, four Conservative negotiators, including Cameron's de facto deputy William Hague and their finance spokesman George Osborne, met with four senior Lib Dems, but both parties gave little away on how the talks had gone.

"We've had an intitial meeting, that's all there is to say about it at the moment," Hague told reporters.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman confirmed that the negotiating teams met for just over an hour.

"They had a discussion and they agreed that future meetings will take place," he said.

After later internal talks at their party headquarters, Lib Dem grandee Simon Hughes said: "Things are going properly. Things are going carefully. I am not going to speculate. You'll just have to wait."

The pound slumped to a 13-month low against the dollar and London stocks sank on fears the deadlock would hamper the nation's ability to slash the giant public debt, analysts said.

Clegg earlier said the Conservatives, as the largest party in the new parliament, had the "first right to seek to govern".

Cameron and Clegg held telephone talks for 10 minutes, a Lib Dem spokesman said, adding: "They agreed that they should explore further proposals for a programme of economic and political reform."

But negotiations could be tough: Clegg and Cameron are much further apart in terms of policy than the Lib Dems and Labour: Clegg is a europhile, wants to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent and backs an illegal immigrant amnesty.

Cameron said in any deal it was "reasonable to expect the bulk of policies in our manifesto" would be implemented, while highlighting common ground on issues like civil liberties and the need for a low carbon economy.

"I think we have a strong basis for a strong government," he said.

Foreign reaction to Britain's political limbo was muted.

In Washington, a White House spokesman said the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States would remain intact whoever emerges as prime minister.

Some commentators said the only solution to the deadlock might be a fresh election.

There were several notable political casualties of the election. Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson lost his House of Commons seat following a sex and cash scandal involving him and his wife.

The polls were marred by protests by voters prevented from casting their ballots in London, Leeds, Sheffield and other cities, where they were still queuing as polling stations closed at 10:00 pm.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said legal challenges could not be ruled out, while the Electoral Commission watchdog launched an investigation.


© 2010 AFP

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