'Decision time' for talks on new British government

11th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Talks on forming a new government in Britain reached "decision time" Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he will quit to try to keep his party in power following an election stalemate.

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 the 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," Cameron said.

"I hope they make the right decision that will give this country the strong, stable government it badly needs and badly needs quickly," he told a scrum of reporters outside his London home.

Clegg, meanwhile, said negotiations were entering a "critical and final phase", adding he was as "impatient as anyone else" for a decision.

"I really hope we will be able to make an announcement, so we can clear up everything and explain to people exactly what our thinking is, as quickly as we possibly can," 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.

"There aren't really two secure and strong governments on offer, there's either working with the Conservatives and Liberals together... or there is the alternative which doesn't really have a parliamentary majority.

"I don't think that is secure, strong or democratically well-founded," Osborne told the BBC.

He later indicated he expected to know within hours whether it would be possible to reach an agreement with the Lib Dems.

In Thursday's general election, 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 probably require help from smaller parties like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

However, influential former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown floated the possibility of a minority Liberal/Labour coalition without the "panjandrum of elements" of the fringe parties.

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, according to odds from bookmakers updated minutes after the prime minister's statement.

Deputy leader Harriet Harman has ruled herself out.

London stock markets opened slightly down as two Labour former home secretaries warned against a deal with the Lib Dems.

David Blunkett said a "coalition of the defeated" would spell disaster for Labour and accused the Lib Dems of acting "like every harlot in history", while John Reid said a coalition would mean "mutually assured destruction for both parties".

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 Conservatives strongly oppose such changes.

In a counter-offer to the Lib Dems after Brown's bombshell statement, negotiator William Hague said the Tories would promise a referendum on electoral reform if they entered a coalition.

But this may not go far enough for many Lib Dems as the system proposed by the Tories is far less radical than the one the centrists committed to in their manifesto.

© 2010 AFP

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