Gordon Brown offers to step down
Monday, May 10, 2010; 2:00 PM
Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday offered to step down by this fall as he announced the opening of formal negotiations with a rival party to form a "progressive alliance" and block the Conservative Party from retaking power in Britain.
Brown's stunning announcement marked a fresh turn in the already chaotic attempts to form a new government in Britain following last Thursday's inconclusive elections. Since then, the Liberal Democrats, who came in third, have been in intense talks with the Conservatives, who won the most seats but fell short of the majority needed to Parliament to form a new government. But those talks appeared to be bogged down on Monday.
Washington Post staff writer Dan Balz was online from London on Monday, May 10, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the significance of today's action and the prospect that Britain may be governed yet again by a prime minister who has not been elected with a mandate from the public.
Dan Balz: Hello to everyone from London. It's been another wild and potentially momentous day here as Britain awaits the answer to the question: who will lead the new government? The latest surprise came around 5 p.m. London time when Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he would step down no later than this fall. His hope is that, by doing so, he can hasten an agreement between the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats that would keep the Conservative Party, which won the most seats last week but not a majority, from returning to power.
This was a stunning development in an already confused situation. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have spent the past four days negotiating a possible alliance. Those talks appeared to falter somewhat today. In stepped Brown to announce that the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had asked to begin formal negotiations with Labor while continuing to talk to the Conservatives.
So we are heading toward more suspense, with Britain in truly uncharted waters. Our London bureau chief, Anthony Faiola and special correspondent Karla Adam have been all over the election story for more than a month. I'm here on temporary duty and will field your questions for the next 30 minutes or so.
Baltimore, Md.: It seems like Nick Glegg of the Liberal Democrats is an an enviable/unenviable position. Yes, he has the power to be a kingmaker. But unless the Tories want to commit political suicide, they won't agree to proportional representation in the House of Commons. And unless Clegg gets an ironclad guarantee on that matter, he will likely face a revolt from the left leaning members of his party. How is he going to walk this tightrope? Thanks.
Dan Balz: You're absolutely right, of course. It's that old proverb, be careful what you wish for. Clegg is in a very difficult position. There are some areas where the Lib Dems overlap with the Conservatives, at least philosophically. There are other areas where they are very much at odds: Europe, immigration, etc. But the big stumbling block is electoral reform.
The latest from here is that the Conservatives have offered a referendum on proportional representation. This was just announced minutes ago by William Hague, who leads the Conservative negotiating team. Now, a referendum is by no means a guarantee, and it's probably that Conservatives would not argue for its passage. So Clegg really now has to figure out which way to move. Fascinating.
Arlington, VA: Even if the Lib Dems decide to join Labour they still wouldn't have a working majority, would they? I guess you could add in all of those little parties but such a coalition would be pretty unwieldy, no?
Dan Balz: That is the biggest stumbling block. Together they fall about a dozen seats short. Labor folks believe they could assemble a government with the tacit support of some of the regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Still, it's not clear that would be terribly stable. So there are a lot of ifs here and a fascinating, high-stakes moment unfolding.
Fairfax, Va.: Did Brown's gaffe of calling that woman on a campaign stop a "bigoted woman" cost him the election?
Dan Balz: No, though it certainly made a bad situation worse for a few days. Actually, Labor leaders ended up relieved that the party didn't do worse. For a time it looked as if Labor might run third in the popular vote, behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the end, they got 29 percent to the Conservatives' 36 percent and the Lib Dems' 23 percent.
Still, Brown is a very unpopular figure. People are tired weary of the Labor government after 13 years in power, but what the election showed is that many voters still have doubts about the Conservative, particularly at a time when the economy and budget will demand careful management and some painful moves to eliminate the big deficit.
Baltimore, Md.: I'm glad to see that Gordon Brown has offered to step down. It's the best thing for the country. I also hope that the Labor Party will be open to electoral reform as urged by the Liberal Democrats. Such reform is badly needed in Britain, to more clearly represent the will of the people. It will be interesting to see if Nick Clegg will get a cabinet post. Is there a possible path ahead for Clegg to become Prime Minister eventually if not now?
Dan Balz: Well, it is certainly the best thing for the Labor Party at this moment. Labor is open to electoral reform and right now there is a public bidding war unfolding between Labor and Conservatives.
At this point there's no clear path for Clegg to become prime minister. His party finished third in the popular vote and, because of the vagaries of Britain's electoral system, got fewer than ten percent of the seats in Parliament -- fewer actually than in the last Parliament. So Clegg is in an unusual position -- his party lost seats but emerged to play kingmaker. But that doesn't include becoming king.
Washington, D.C.: Dan, The Guardian is reporting that the Tories are offering a referendum on an Alternative Vote, not Proportional Representation, which I understand are two separate things? Labour has offered AV outright, without the referendum, and a PR referendum. Still a sticky situation for Clegg...
Dan Balz: One of the complexities here is that there are various types of proportional representation that could be considered. The details are too complicated to go into here. Exactly what might emerge as the preferred choice isn't known.
The Electoral Reform Society published an analysis today comparing the results of last week's election under three systems, the current "first-past-the-post" system; the "alternative vote" system; and something known as "single transferable vote."
In last Thursday's election, conducted under first past the post, the Conservatives came out with 307 seats, Labor 258 and the Lib Dems 57. Under "AV," it would have been 281 for the Conservatives, 262 for Labor and 79 for the Lib Dems. Under "STV," it would have been 246 for the Conservatives, 207 for Labor and 162 for the Lib Dems.
London, U.K.: You reported that William Hague has announced the Conservatives will allow a referendum on proportional representation. This is incorrect; he announced a referendum on alternative voting.
How do you think the British people will react to Nick Clegg, who has substantially argued against minority governments, essentially propping up a party that were wholly voted out of office?
Dan Balz: Technically correct. In the U.S. we are shorthanding it, since there are various systems that would be more proportional. And it's not clear that anyone will give the Lib Dems pure PR. We shall see.
You're right about the Clegg dilemma. Can he afford to enter into what has been called a coalition of the losers and deny the party that ran first the opportunity to govern. He said during the campaign that the party that had the most seats and the most votes deserved the first chance to form a government, which put him into negotiations with the Conservatives. But so many of the grassroots of his party are against any deal with the Tories.
I just talked to someone who thinks that, almost no matter what agreement emerges, there will be a new election in the not-too-distant future.
Northwood, Middlesex: Dan, nice to have you over here. It seems to me that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would fall apart within the year and poison the well for the Lib Dems for a very long time because, let's face it, Labour is the skunk in the room and they are about to enjoy a warm embrace. They probably won't get proportional representation, so where's the win? Fifteen minutes of fame and a Wikipedia entry?
Dan Balz: Dear Northwood, Middlesex:
Thanks. It's been a great election to cover. I love the politics over here and was lucky enough to get to spend more than a week tracking things. I've extended a few days because the story is so rich.
There are people I've talked to who think the Lib Dems could suffer that fate no matter which party they try to align with. Certainly there is that risk, given that many people are weary of Labor after 13 years in power. But do the Lib Dems want to be part of a government that may have to make some really painful cuts in spending or raise taxes? As you know, the head of the Bank of England was quoted as saying in a private conversation that whoever won this election would lose the next election and then be out of power for years -- such are the tough choices ahead.
Washington, D.C.: Following the news here, it seemed as if the Lib Dems might pick up dozens of seats and force a true coalition government. Yet at the end, they actually lost seats, even with 23 percent of the vote. Has there been any examination of why their electoral breakthrough not only stalled, but went backward?
Dan Balz: It was a huge surprise, one that neither the Conservatives nor Labor saw coming -- and certainly it was a major disappointment for Clegg. You could see it on his face and in his body language that night and early the next morning when he got back to London. No one is quite certain why it happened, other than that, in the end, people reverted more or less to form, which is to say that people were unnerved at the prospect of truly striking a blow for something different and stuck with what they knew best, which was the two parties that have dominated for so long.
Bethesda, Md.: In your political news coverage experience, can you liken what's going on there with how such a situation would play out in American politics? Can you draw an example?
Dan Balz: The systems are so different that it's hard to make that comparison. For one, this is a parliamentary system, so people don't vote for prime minister. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were on ballots only in their home districts (called constituencies here).
Because there is a third party here that is a viable, ongoing party, this means that the two dominant parties generally win elections with a plurality, not a majority of the vote. In this case, nobody won a majority of either. The Conservatives got just 36 percent, Labor 29 and the Lib Dems 23.
What is happening here is totally common throughout Europe. A governmental expert told me today that, if this were almost anywhere else in Europe, the process of negotiating an alliance among parties would be straightforward. But there's been nothing like it here since 1974.
It's hard to see that happening in the United States. First, we elect presidents separately from the House and Senate. And a president can win with less than a majority of the popular vote, as Bill Clinton did twice. In the Congress, there is no third party big enough to claim enough seats to deny Republicans or Democrats the majority.
I think the closest equivalent is the situation we had after 1994 -- a Congress controlled by one party and a White House controlled by the other. That did produce some cooperation in order to get things done, but the extent to which it did, it caused heartburn with the bases of both parties. We could see that kind of situation after the fall midterm elections, if Republicans win the House. We'll see what that would do.
Rockville, Md.: How quickly do you see the next election happening in the UK? Later this year? Next year?
And who will be the next leader of the Labour Party? Ed Balls (unfortunate name)? One of the Miliband brothers (Secretary Clinton would prefer David you'd think)?
Dan Balz: Not clear how quickly there might be another election. No one will know until it's apparent what the shape of the new government may be and how stable it is.
As for Labor's next leader, David Miliband, the current foreign secretary, is considered one of the leading candidates. He's out of the Blair wing of the party. Ed Balls has been one of Gordon Brown's closest confidants and was elected to Parliament in 2005. Miliband's brother Ed, who has also been close to Brown, is apparently talking about running as well, which would make for some tense times over the Miliband family table at holiday time. Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the party, is a possible candidate, as is Alan Johnson, who has held several cabinet posts and would have some strong union support.
Dan Balz: We're out of time. Thanks for sending in your questions and please keep following our coverage. That's all for now from here in London.
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