'Decision time' for talks on new British government

11th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

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's game-changing announcement that he will quit as Labour's leader after it came second in Thursday's general election, which produced no clear winner.

The Lib Dems, led by Nick Clegg, held talks Tuesday first with Labour and then David Cameron's Conservatives amid fears that a Lib Dem/Labour coalition would not be sustainable and could shake financial markets.

Conservative leader Cameron piled pressure on Clegg's third party centrists to decide which way to jump after he offered 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.

Lib Dem negotiators held a fresh round of talks with Labour first thing Tuesday. Labour's Ed Miliband, a key ally of Brown, said afterwards that there were "many points of agreement" but "further issues to be worked through."

The Lib Dem team then huddled with Conservatives.

Walking into the talks, Tory negotiator William Hague said he expected to hear whether the Lib Dems would accept their crunch offer of a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system in return for joining them in government.

The Lib Dems argue that the current first-past-the-post voting system means they get far fewer seats than they would under a system of proportional representation.

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 makes a deal with the Lib Dems more likely -- he is personally unpopular -- and 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 which Foreign Secretary David Miliband is the bookmakers' clear favourite to win.

Labour and the Lib Dems are ideologically closer, on the left of the political spectrum, than the centre-right Conservatives and the Lib Dems, although the electoral arithmetic of a Tory/Lib Dem deal is stronger.

Many Lib Dems may also feel it is risky to enter a deal without knowing who Labour's next leader will be.

London's FTSE 100 stock exchange fell over two percent Tuesday. Investors are worried that a Labour/Lib Dem government could lack the clout to reduce Britain's massive debt after its worst recession on record.

Meanwhile, two Labour former Cabinet ministers 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 ranks at the Liberal Democrats, who they had thought were 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.

In a further sign of discontent in the Tory party, influential right-wing group Conservative Way Forward called leaders to end talks with the Lib Dems and rule as a minority government.

© 2010 AFP

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