British PM falls on sword, seeking post-poll deal

10th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Monday he will stand down as Labour leader and eventually premier in a dramatic move which could see his party keep power despite losing a deadlocked election.

Brown also announced the start of formal power-sharing talks between Labour and third party the Liberal Democrats, who have only officially been talking to the main opposition Conservatives since last Thursday's general election.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who emerged as kingmaker after no party won a clear majority, welcomed Brown's statement that he will quit by September as "important" in a possible power-sharing deal between the two parties.

"I think his announcement could be an important element in the smooth transition towards a stable government," said Clegg, who indicated before the election he would not share power with Labour if Brown remained its leader.

"It must have been a very difficult thing for him to say personally," added Clegg, whose centrist party is seen as politically closer to centre-left Labour than the centre-right Conservatives.

Brown's statement marks the beginning of the end of his premiership and an act of political self-sacrifice, increasing the previously distant chance that Labour could extend its 13 years in office through a deal with the Lib Dems.

If that happened, he could still stay on as prime minister for several months even though he led his party to second place behind David Cameron's Conservatives in the poll.

"The reason that we have a hung parliament is that no single party and no single leader was able to win the full support of the country," Brown said in a tense statement delivered in Downing Street.

"As leader of my party, I must accept that that is a judgement on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labour party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election."

Brown added that it "could be in the interests of the whole country to form a progressive coalition government" involving Labour and the Lib Dems.

In Thursday's poll, the Conservatives won 306 seats in the 650-member House of Commons -- 20 short of an absolute majority of 326 -- followed by Labour on 258 and the Lib Dems on 57.

Labour and the Lib Dems together would still not have enough seats for a clear majority, and would require help from smaller parties like Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

Earlier in the day, hopes had been rising that Clegg's party could be about to announce a deal with the Conservatives, despite their radically different positions on issues like Europe, defence and reforming Britain's voting system.

But Lib Dem negotiator David Laws said after a meeting with lawmakers that further "clarification" was still needed, the first indication of possible problems.

Alastair Campbell, former premier Tony Blair's communications chief who also advised Brown during the election, said Brown's announcement would be seen as an olive branch from Labour to the Lib Dems.

"I think what Gordon has done today is made clear... if those talks (between the Conservatives and Lib Dems) go nowhere there's another possibility," he told the BBC.

"There's a kind of urgency now, people have to start making decisions and I think forcing the pace will do all the parties a bit of good."

Foreign Secretary David Miliband is the odds-on favourite to replace Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the Labour Party leader, according to odds from bookmakers updated minutes after Brown's statement.

The key potential stumbling block to a deal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives is seen as electoral reform.

The Lib Dems want to scrap the first-past-the-post system, which favours two-party politics and means smaller parties like theirs get fewer seats in the House of Commons. But most Conservatives strongly oppose such changes.

If the Conservatives and Lib Dems do strike a deal, it would likely pave the way for Cameron to become prime minister, taking over from Brown who is still in office.

Thursday's general election delivered a hung parliament -- where no one party has overall control -- for the first time since 1974.

© 2010 AFP

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