Electoral Demand Stalls Coalition Deal in Britain
By JOHN F. BURNS
Published: May 8, 2010
LONDON — Talks about forming a new government resumed on Saturday amid concern that continuing uncertainty would shake world financial markets when they reopen Monday, but the prospects of a deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats by that deadline appeared slim.
As an intensive round of negotiations among the parties’ power brokers began Saturday, the Conservatives appeared strongly resistant to the Liberal Democrats’ main demand: a change in the voting system to help smaller parties gain representation in future parliamentary elections. The most that David Cameron, the Conservative leader, seemed ready to concede was that the voting system, and other electoral measures, could be considered by an all-party parliamentary committee, a mechanism that has failed to institute changes in the past.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, seemed divided over seeking a union with the Conservatives or with the Labour Party, which many among the left-leaning Liberal Democrats see as more philosophically compatible than the Conservatives. Perhaps nodding to that opinion, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, spoke by telephone on Friday evening with the Labour leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Clegg’s aides said. No details were revealed, but one Clegg aide described it as “tetchy.”
Mr. Brown, meanwhile, left Downing Street in mid-afternoon to return to his family home outside Edinburgh, perhaps reflecting low expectations of any early deal between his rivals. His aides said he would remain away at least through Sunday.
Although Mr. Clegg was said to have won strong backing for his negotiating strategy from Liberal Democrats in Parliament and the party’s leadership, the pressures on him appeared to be mounting Saturday, likely delaying any agreement. As he met party power brokers on Saturday, about 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside the party’s headquarters, declaiming talks with the Conservatives and hoisting banners saying “Make my vote count!” and “Votes, not moats!” a reference to one of the more audacious claims for reimbursement revealed during last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal. That claim, filed by a wealthy Conservative, asked the government to pay for the cleaning of his country house moat.
When Mr. Clegg emerged in a bid to placate the crowd, he said that he had made political reform a priority issue “on every single day” of the election campaign, and that he was committed to using the party’s newfound leverage to “usher in a new politics in place of the discredited politics” of old.
The Conservatives’ position appeared to be hardening too, with several senior party members going on television to say emphatically that Mr. Cameron should not even consider proposals on proportional representation that would change a voting system that had served it well for generations. “You can’t expect a party that has been committed to a political system for 150 years to suddenly say, ‘Oh, O.K.’ ” to a fundamental change simply to secure control of 10 Downing Street, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative defense minister, told the BBC.
As the political uncertainties grew, political commentators said that even if a coalition was formed, it was likely to be so fragile that a new election might be needed later this year to try to achieve a clear majority for one of the two main parties, Labour or the Conservatives, or at least a clearer indication of what kind of government — and voting system — Britain wants.
But if the Liberal Democrats seemed likely to balk at any pact with the Conservatives without movement on the voting system, they faced a stumbling block of potentially even greater magnitude in establishing a coalition government with Labour and its widely unpopular leader, Mr. Brown. Despite misgivings among his party’s rank and file, Mr. Clegg has won widespread plaudits from many of Britain’s major newspapers for sticking to a campaign pledge to negotiate first with the Conservatives, on the basis that they had earned the first right to try to form a government by winning the most seats and votes.
The Conservatives took 306 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, 20 seats short of a majority. After 13 years in power, Labour won just 258 seats, posting its worst election performance since 1931. The Liberal Democrats won five fewer seats than in 2005.
Although more talks are set for Sunday, Mr. Clegg appeared to be signaling Saturday that voters should not expect a decision that day. He said he would not be driven by “artificial timescales,” including the concern that failure to reach a deal could put new pressure on the pound and on the yields demanded by investors for the bonds that finance the country’s enormous government deficit.
But as reporters and television crews rushed from one spot to another around the square mile of Whitehall that is the seat of Parliament, the parties’ headquarters and 10 Downing Street, some Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians began putting forward a new arithmetic. They said that although the Conservatives won 10.7 million total votes, Labor and the Liberal Democrats together won 15.4 million. That, they said, showed there was a “progressive” majority among voters.
Ben Bradshaw, culture minister in the Labour cabinet, was one of a parade of senior Labour figures on Whitehall’s sidewalks on Saturday who made that argument. He also added a Labour claim that has had many television anchors looking stupefied since the scale of Labour’s setback became apparent. “This is no small victory for Gordon Brown, who deprived the Conservatives of a majority,” he said.
The riposte to those claims among Labour’s critics included withering portrayals in many British newspapers of Mr. Brown as a man in deep denial, bunkered at Downing Street. Mr. Brown has taken the high road in public, saying the Conservatives and Liberals should take as much time as they need for their exchanges.
Along with this, he has made sonorous statements about his obligation to carry on with prime ministerial duties.
But that produced a provocative front page in the Sun, the country’s most widely circulated newspaper. In this election, after abandoning the support it gave to Labour in every election since 1997, the paper embraced the Conservatives and made Mr. Brown its favorite target.
In its Saturday edition, it ran a banner headline proclaiming “Whitehall Property Scandal, Squatter Holed up in No. 10.” The accompanying story began thus: “A man aged 59 was squatting in a luxury home near the Houses of Parliament last night. The squatter, named as a Mr. Gordon Brown from Scotland, was refusing to budge from the Georgian townhouse in Downing Street, central London — denying entry to its rightful owner,” identified by the Sun as Mr. Cameron.
The story encapsulated the political quandary facing Mr. Clegg, who was the first to use the squatter imagery during the campaign.
Anthony Howard, a veteran political commentator, offered his own metaphor for the risks for Mr. Clegg if he threw his backing to Mr. Brown, who has promised a shift to what he called a “fairer” voting system as part of any deal with the Liberal Democrats. “If you hug a chimney sweep, you get covered in grime,” Mr. Howard said.