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British Elections: Deal Is Close, Say Conservatives, Liberal Democrats

4 years ago
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In the aftermath of the hung parliament that resulted from Thursday's British elections, talks between the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties are continuing into their third day. Negotiators for both parties affirm that a deal is close, even as their rank and file sound less enthusiastic.

Well, the roller coaster ride continues with many twists and turns, but without any firm resolution. Since mid-afternoon Friday, when it became clear that no party had a sufficient majority to assume power in Great Britain, the Tories and the Lib-Dems have been locked in talks to see if they can come to an agreement on a possible working government.
Talks held between the two parties Monday morning have ended and negotiators from both groups must now report back to party leaders. It is unclear whether further negotiations will be held this afternoon, or if matters must now be hashed out within the parties themselves before any further steps are taken. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is set to meet with his members of parliament (MPs) at 1 p.m. GMT, while Conservative leader David Cameron is set to meet with his MPs at 6 p.m. GMT. The two leaders spoke by phone early this morning, following face to face talks on Sunday. Both the Tory and Lib Dem teams say they have made "further progress" today.

Clegg announced Sunday night that he was giving himself 24 hours to decide whether or not his party would enter into some kind of partnership with the Conservatives. But the content of this deal -- should it come to pass -- still isn't clear. The Daily Telegraph reports that Cameron is offering to trade reform of the voting system (long a signature feature of the Lib Dem platform) for a two-year deal with Clegg that would deliver economic and social changes -- in particular, the painful cuts needed to reduce the deficit. Specifically, the Lib Dems would agree to education and welfare reforms favored by the Tories in exchange for a promise by Cameron to hold a referendum on a new voting system developed by a cross-party commission of inquiry that would conclude during this Parliament. It is still unclear whether such a deal would take the form of a formal coalition government or a less formal "consent and supply" arrangement where the two parties colluded on a vote-by-vote basis.

While that may all sound very promising, it's far from clear that even if the leadership can come to an arrangement that both sides support, the deal will pass muster with the party faithful on either side. On the Conservative side, a number of senior Tories have openly said that they would prefer to rule as a minority government rather than make too many concessions on electoral reform (a proportional representation (PR) voting system is thought to hurt the Tories, whose support is quite concentrated in a the set of electoral districts that ring London). Progress between the two parties may also be undermined by a document leaked to The Observer newspaper over the weekend outlining a very hard-line, anti-Europe stance by the Tories once in power (the Lib Dems are strongly pro-European).

Nor will Clegg have smooth sailing with his own party. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the hall where the two parties met over the weekend to demand electoral reform. For many MPs and senior party activists -- who, under party rules, must approve any deal that goes forward -- having the guarantee of a PR system is a sine qua non to any agreement with the Tories, who are distrusted by large swathes of the Lib Dem faithful.

And, to throw one more wrench into things, the Lib Dems revealed today that a group from their party had also held secret talks with senior Labour Party officials over the weekend to discuss a possible "progressive alliance" (a Lib-Labour pact, together with a coalition of smaller parties) should the negotiations with the Tories collapse. The two center-left parties have a good deal more in common programmatically than do the Lib Dems and the Tories, and Labour is offering an immediate referendum on electoral reform. But the price of such a deal might be Gordon Brown's head (several senior cabinet officials have already called for him to step down). At least for the moment, however, he's staying put.

Only one thing is certain after these unprecedented negotiations over power-sharing in Britain: When all is said and done, not everyone is going to walk away happy.

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