British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offers to step down
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
LONDON -- After a long and rocky political career spent battling the rival Conservative Party, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sacrificed the only thing he had left: himself.
Brown, whose Labor Party suffered massive losses in a second-place finish in Thursday's elections, stood outside No. 10 Downing Street on Monday afternoon and vowed that he would resign by the fall. The dramatic announcement was seen as a last-ditch attempt to open the way to an alliance between his party and the third-place Liberal Democrats, who had strongly suggested that no deal was possible until Brown agreed to step aside.
The prime minister's move also raised the stakes in the scramble to form a new government, exacerbating a tug of war for power unlike any Britain has seen in a generation.
For the past three years, Brown has led the country through a tumultuous period punctuated by its ongoing involvement in the war in Afghanistan, a roiling parliamentary expenses scandal and the global financial crisis. In the process, he has become widely unpopular. He acknowledged Monday that his unpopularity was impeding his party's best interests.
"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," Brown said. "As leader of my party, I must accept that that is a judgment on me."
The formation of a Conservative-led government would end 13 years of Labor Party rule -- a run that began with the rise of Tony Blair to the premiership. Brown's latest decision was as much a bid for his own party as it was an effort to thwart the Conservatives -- who won the most seats in last week's election but fell short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a government.
Since Friday, the Liberal Democrats, headed by Nicholas Clegg, have been in intense talks with the Conservatives. On Monday, with those talks bogged down for a fourth day, a frustrated Clegg reached out to Labor and asked for formal negotiations, under the assumption that Brown would not linger in power.
"It must have been a difficult thing for him to say personally," Clegg told reporters after Brown's announcement, "but it was taken in the national interest."
The move clearly spooked the Conservatives. They immediately sweetened their offer to the Liberal Democrats, saying Clegg could have not only cabinet posts but also a referendum on electoral reform that could break Britain's traditional two-party dominance and give his party a better chance at winning power.
The Conservatives also suggested that a Labor-Liberal Democrat coalition -- which would also require other, smaller regional parties to come into their fold -- would represent a coalition of losing parties. Brown succeeded Blair without an election, and a Labor-Liberal Democrat alliance raised the prospect that Britain might be governed again by a prime minister who doesn't have a mandate from the public.
William Hague, who is leading a Conservative negotiating team, said that if the Liberal Democrats opted for a deal with Labor, they "would be making a great mistake."
By late Monday, a handful of senior Labor Party officials were publicly questioning the wisdom of the pact Brown was attempting to engineer.
But Anthony Seldon, who is writing a biography of Brown in office, said that neither alliance -- Liberal Democrats with Conservatives or Liberal Democrats with Labor -- is likely to result in the kind of stable government that all party leaders have said is the goal of the negotiations.
"It's hard to see an outcome other than [another] general election to sort it all out," he said.
Tim Bale, a professor of government at the University of Sussex and author of a new history of the Conservative Party, called a Labor-Liberal Democrat alliance more logical, given the policy positions of the two parties. That, he said, could produce a more stable government than a Conservative-Liberal Democrat agreement, if there is support from the regional parties.
"It might be a government that makes more sense," Bale said.
Brown's Labor Party has been more explicit in offering the Liberal Democrats some kind of deal on electoral reform, including a voting system that would allocate seats in Parliament more proportionally.
But constitutional experts said there is no guarantee that Labor could help deliver a new system. The process would require a vote in Parliament that could easily be defeated, because many Labor politicians might vote against a system that could cost them their seats.
It had been clear since Thursday's vote that Brown's days were numbered. In his announcement Monday, he said he would push for a new Labor leadership contest, which he said would be completed by the time of the party conference this fall.
Whether that offer will be enough to help spur a pact with the Liberal Democrats was one of the major questions swirling in his wake.
Some experts said Labor Party officials are likely to be reluctant to try to pick a new leader any sooner than the timetable Brown laid out, but they still questioned whether the unpopular prime minister's announcement goes far enough to satisfy the country at large.
Was his announcement Monday the equivalent of falling on his sword for the good of his party, or a Machiavellian move to keep himself in office for three or four more months?
"No one can know," Seldon said. "It's part of the genius of this man that he's very hard to read. He greatly loves the Labor Party, unlike Tony Blair, who was never of the party. He loves that party desperately, and so he would have to be falling on his sword if it meant his party had a better chance of power and enacting" its agenda.