Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Brown to quit as talks continue

According to a senior Liberal Democrat source, the process of forming a new government may be resolved within the next 24 hours. Both the Conservatives and Labour have held discussions with the LibDems in an attempt to form a coalition since the outcome of the general election left Britain with its first hung parliament in 36 years. Amid the wrangling has been the debate over the future of Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown who yesterday announced his intention to step down as Labour's leader [BBC / Sky].

Standing on the steps of Number 10, Gordon Brown said he hoped that his standing down would provide a clear path to form what he called "stable and principled government". He also accepted that Britain's failure to form a majority party was a reflection on his own leadership.

"If it becomes clear that the national interest, which is stable and principled government, can be best served by forming a coalition between the Labour 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 speach and any other confidence votes," Brown told the assembled media. "I have no desire to stay in my position longer than is needed to ensure that past economic growth is assured and the process of political reform we have agreed moves forward quickly." 

"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 the leader of my party I must accept that that is a judgement on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labour party to set in train the processes needed 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 Labour party conference. I will play no part in that contest, I will back no individual candidate." [BBC]

Whether his announcement to stand down will make Labour more attractive to the LibDems is not yet clear. However, Labour are already offering to put an Alternative Vote [AV] system into law and hold a referendum asking voters to approve it. This would be highly attractive to the LibDems who have consistently called for voting reform. The Conservative party are resistant to changes in the political system and say that proportional representation would result in unstable and weak government as well as allowing fringe parties, such as the British National Party, a voice. Under AV no candidate is elected without at least 50% of the vote, after second preferences are taken into account. However, it is not considered to be full proportional representation.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has already appeared to indicate that his party might side with Labour. Speaking yesterday he said while he was "very grateful to David Cameron and his negotiation team" and that "very constructive talks" had resulted in a "great deal of progress" they had not "reached a comprehensive partnership agreement for a full Parliament". As such, it was the "responsible thing to do" to open negotiations with the Labour Party he said. Talks with the Tories would continue however.

In what seemed like the clearest indication his party might be wooed by Labour, he said, "Gordon Brown has taken a difficult personal decision in the national interest,... And I think without prejudice to the talks that will now happen between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Gordon Brown's decision is an important element which could help ensure a smooth transition to the stable government that everyone deserves."

There is some hostility among both Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters to an alliance between the two. Even amongst Labour ranks there are some reservations about the LibDems and Labour joining forces. Labour backbencher Graham Stringer said he did not believe a coalition with the LibDems would work and could even damage the party. "I don't think it makes sense in the arithmetic - the numbers don't add up," Stringer said.

Britain's press mostly saw the announcement by Brown to quit as a cynical ploy to maintain power. The Daily Telegraph said the prime minister has been accused of a "sordid" attempt to keep Labour in power after offering to step down while the Daily Express claimed Britain was facing rule by a "coalition of losers" as Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg edged towards a "sordid" political stitch-up. The Daily Mail also warned of a constitutional crisis and called Monday's events a "Squalid Day for Democracy". The paper called Brown's announcement a cynical bid to keep Labour in power.

Rupert Murdoch owned papers also talked of potential chaos ensuing. Running with the headline "Going Brown", The Sun said there is "chaos" as Clegg flirts with Labour. The Wall Street Journal also talked of an ensuing political crisis.

Some papers saw Brown's decision as a pragmatic choice. The Times referred to Gordon Brown's announcement as his "parting shot" while the Financial Times said Brown had sacrificed himself to help forge a power-sharing deal between Labour and the LibDems. The Independent too sees Brown's resignation as a sacrifice to win the prize of a "progressive alliance".

Only the Mirror fully backed the PM, as it had throughout the campaign, running with the headline "For the Greater Gord". However, the Daily star was scathing of all the main party leaders. "Sort it out you Clowns" the tabloid blasted from its front page and called on the parties to concentrate on running the country [Papers: Sky].

As the largest party, the Conservatives could form a minority government but may find passing legislation difficult. If the Liberal Democrats joined with them the two would have to overcome political differences. Even if Labour managed to strike a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats they would still fall short of holding an overall majority in the House of Commons and would need support of minority parties. The DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] in Northern Ireland would likely side with the Conservatives with the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party] forming an alliance with Labour. However, even this would not give either side a clear majority. Both sides would then need to seek support from the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Alliance party in Northern Ireland. 

The SDLP and the Alliance party have given tacit support to Labour. Margaret Ritchie, leader of the SDLP, said, "The results in Britain have made today's decision by Gordon Brown almost inevitable. However, Mr Brown should be given credit for having listened to the message given to him by the public" [Belfast Telegraph]. The deciding factor is whether the LibDems will form a coalition with the Tories or Labour. The LibDems may even decide to allow both parties to battle each other without their full support leaving Britain without strong leadership, nor a clear political direction. Such a prospect may even lead to another election within a year, many political commentators suggest.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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