'Decision time' for talks on new British government
Talks on forming a new British government reached "decision time" Tuesday, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown dramatically vowed to stand down to keep his party in power following a poll deadlock.
The three main political parties held more frantic negotiations after Brown announced he would step down as Labour leader, confounding expectations that the Conservatives would strike a deal with the smaller Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems, led by Nick Clegg, are now talking to both the Conservatives and Labour, despite warnings that a Lib Dem/Labour coalition would be unstable and unnerve already jittery financial markets.
Conservative leader David Cameron piled pressure on the Lib Dems to decide which way to jump after his party offered them a make-or-break concession on their touchstone issue of electoral reform Monday.
"It's now I believe decision time, decision time for the Liberal Democrats," said Cameron, adding: "I hope they make the right decision that will give this country the strong, stable government it badly needs and badly needs quickly".
Clegg meanwhile said negotiations were entering a "critical and final phase", adding he was as "impatient as anyone else" for a decision. "I'm certainly hopeful of getting a resolution as quickly as possible," he said.
One of Cameron's closest lieutenants, George Osborne, insisted that only a Lib Dem deal with the Conservatives could bring Britain the stability it needs as it battles to reduce record public debt.
He added that he expected to know within hours if it would be possible to reach a deal with the Lib Dems.
In Thursday's general election, the Conservatives won 306 seats in the 650-member House of Commons -- 20 short of a clear 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 probably require help from smaller parties like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
Brown's act of political self-sacrifice marks the beginning of the end of his premiership but if a Labour/Lib Dem deal is agreed, he could stay on as a caretaker ahead of a leadership contest due by September.
Labour and the Lib Dems are ideologically closer, on the left of the political spectrum, than the Conservatives and Lib Dems, although the electoral arithmetic of a Tory/Lib Dem deal is stronger.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband is the odds-on favourite to replace Brown as Labour Party leader, although the lengthy leadership contest will not begin until a deal on the new government is agreed.
Miliband appeared to confirm he would stand when he told reporters in a brief statement: "I'm not going to be saying anything more and none of the candidates are going to be saying anything more either".
London FTSE 100 stock exchange was down nearly two percent in early trading. Investors are worried that a coalition government could lack the clout to reduce Britain's massive debt after its worst recession on record.
Meanwhile, two Labour former home secretaries warned against a deal with the Lib Dems, with one, David Blunkett, accusing the Lib Dems of acting "like every harlot in history"
And a senior Tory revealed anger in the party at Clegg, who they had thought was in exclusive negotiations with them until Brown's resignation bombshell.
Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, said Clegg's behaviour looked "duplicitous".
"If a deal is made with two parties that were rejected by the electorate forming a government of the defeated, it will not only have questionable legitimacy, it will also suggest (they) have joined the Robert Mugabe school of politics," he told Sky News television.
The key potential stumbling block to a deal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives is electoral reform.
The Lib Dems want to scrap the first-past-the-post system, which means smaller parties like theirs get fewer seats in the House of Commons.
But Conservatives strongly oppose such changes although they have offered a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, as used in Australia's House of Representatives, which Labour says it wants put into law.
© 2010 AFP