Scenes From the British Election
On the day that Gordon Brown announced his resignation as leader of the Labor Party, albeit on a time delay, it may seem perverse to begin a dispatch with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. The end of Brown is big news—it is the end of the Blair-Brown era —but today belonged to Clegg and the Lib Dems.
Who would have thought that likely? In last Thursday's general election, the Lib Dems won just 57 parliamentary seats. In addition, the party lost control of numerous local councils. That wasn't just a disappointment to the party's supporters; it was a shock and a surprise. By the end of today, Clegg and his team are in the strongest position they've known in years.
This morning, Clegg told reporters standing outside his Putney home:
I don't think a prolonged period of uncertainty is a good thing. That's why I want to arrive at a decision … as soon as possible. But I hope people will equally understand that it would be better to get the decision right rather than rushing into something that won't stand the test of time.
Twelve hours later, the leader of Britain's third party had apparently forced the prime minister to resign: Apparently, Clegg's precondition for formal talks between the Lib Dems and the Labor Party was an announcement by Brown that he would leave Downing Street. Since Brown became prime minister in 2007, there have been four attempts by Labor members to oust him, and each one failed. It's quite an indictment of Labor that Clegg has done what the party couldn't do for itself.
Brown emerged from 10 Downing Street at 5 this afternoon and set the terms for his departure. It was a confused speech:
If it becomes clear that the national interest, which is stable and principled government, can be best served by forming a coalition between the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats, then I believe I should discharge that duty to form that government which would in my view command a majority in the House of Commons in the Queen's speech and any other confidence votes.
What Brown meant is that he would form a coalition government with the Lib Dems if Clegg agreed to it, but—and crucially—he would act only as a caretaker prime minister. He continued:
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. As leader of my party, I must accept that that is a judgment on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labor Party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election. I would hope that it would be completed in time for the new leader to be in post by the time of the Labor Party conference.
Essentially, Brown said he would be a lame-duck prime minister, waiting in Downing Street until the Labor Party elects a new leader over the summer. But how feasible is Brown's wish? Will Labor MPs acquiesce to it, and will Clegg and the Lib Dems accept it? At the time of writing, it's not certain whether either party believes that the stable and principled government Brown talked about can best be served by someone who not only failed to win this election but who will be gone in six months. What kind of political legitimacy does Brown, the future ex-prime minister, think he will possess? One former Labor MP, John Reid, doubts that an arrangement between Labor and the Liberal Democrats is even possible.
I'm afraid I think it is a very bad mistake to contemplate and propose and entice a Lib-Lab coalition. I think it's bad for the country. I think it will prove pretty disastrous for both parties. I think it's bad for Gordon as well. … I think it's bad for the country because first of all it's inherently unstable, because Labor and the Liberals together still don't have a majority.
If Clegg and the Lib Dems have forced Brown out, who would have thought that the Lib Dems would force the Conservatives to concede to electoral reform? That, too, is what happened today. Of all the major parties, the Tories have been the most resistant to alter the first-past-the-post system. Yet this evening, William Hague, the Conservative shadow foreign minister, said that in the eventuality of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government—the two parties have been in negotiations since Saturday—there would be a referendum on how the electorate votes.
At 7:45 p.m., Hague told reporters:
The Liberal Democrats have said to the Conservative Party that they are only prepared to enter into a coalition agreement with a party that will change our electoral system to the alternative vote method of voting. Now, David Cameron and the shadow Cabinet and the Conservative MPs have decided that … we will go the extra mile. We will offer to the Liberal Democrats in a coalition government the holding of a referendum on the alternative vote system, so that the people of this country can decide what the best electoral system is for the future.
That's a concession by Hague, but will it be enough for Clegg if Labor agrees to a similar referendum?
Inevitably, Clegg and the Lib Dems have already been accused of overplaying their hand: They are, in effect, holding the country to ransom in pursuit of a new voting system," said the Telegraph in an editorial.
An issue that featured nowhere on the list of voter priorities in the general election now dominates the political debate. And the tail is wagging the dog. Last Thursday, the two parties that were formally opposed to PR, the Tories and Labour, between them polled 19 million votes. The party that supports PR polled fewer than seven million votes. Is this what Mr Clegg means when he talks about the "new politics?"
One thing you can be reasonably sure the Telegraph isn't proposing, however, is a Conservative-Labor coalition.
Crisis is a much-overused way to describe a difficult political scenario, but tonight, crisis is the only way to account for what's going on in Westminster.
Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.