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Brown exit renews talk of a Lib-Lab coalition

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 May 2010

The Tories are quick to respond after Gordon Brown's departure plans reignited the prospect of a Lib-Lab deal, writes independent political analyst Greg Callus for Channel 4 News.

William Hague interviewed by the media (Credit: Getty)

So negotiators from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives met on Monday morning, and the growing consensus de jour was the a Lib-Con coalition deal was all but signed.

Of course, Nick Clegg would require the support of 42 other Lib Dem MPs, and 75 per cent of the party's Federal Executive, but that surely would be a mere formality in their return to government after a century in Opposition?

Well, maybe not. The parliamentary party did not vote, with negotiator David Laws saying Lib Dem MPs were requesting "clarification" of Tory concessions on tax, education and voting reform, and restating that deficit reduction must be at the heart of any deal.

While Laws, who resisted being poached by the Tories three years ago, was delivering the cold-shoulder message, leftier Simon Hughes was suggesting that a deal might not be possible on Monday but would likely be in place by the end of the week.

Then the major news of the day, Gordon Brown announced that, in the interests of helping form a 'progressive coalition' with the Lib Dems, he would be standing aside as Labour leader once a new leader was in place, expected to be before the party conferences in September.

Perceived as being the major impediment to a Lib-Lab deal, Brown announced his surrender of the keys to 10 Downing Street; a job he worked towards for decades, and held for just three years.

Read more from Greg Callus:
- All eyes on the prize...and on the second prize
- Electoral reform - who would be the winners?
- Could a minority government deal be done?

Suddenly the hopes of those supporting a Lib-Lab-Other coalition were re-ignited from the embers, and a mild despair grew amongst Tory supporters that they might be left in Opposition yet again.

What is striking is the commitment Brown made in his statement.He has made his own exit from office unconditional on a deal struck with the Lib Dems. He did not merely say that he would step down if that were the price of the coalition – he made the down-payment, without any promise of delivery.

For someone who fought so long to become prime minister, there are only a couple of tenable reasons:

Firstly, he was either advised by Mandelson et al that he was going to be forced from the Labour leadership either way and so decided to use his last dregs of political capital to stymie the Lib-Con deal at its most sensitive juncture.

Or secondly, informal negotiations between Labour and the Lib Dems are more advanced than has become known publicly (Clegg and Brown met at the Foreign Office on Sunday evening), and Brown has already secured commitments from the Lib Dems that justified his making this stronger statement.

Both are plausible outcomes – though it is the second that has rattled the Tory negotiating team. They played hardball to begin with, knowing that Clegg would not prop up Brown as PM (and not foreseeing that Brown would give up office so easily), and so did not put electoral reform on the table.

Now Brown has gone, they know that Labour have an advantage in this key area – the Labour party included 'a form of Alternative Vote' (AV) in their manifesto, whilst the Tories remain committed to First Past The Post (FPTP).

Neither goes as far as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) the Lib Dems would like, but the Labour offer is far closer to a solution that would make the Lib Dems a more permanent fixture at the Cabinet table.

So, in what looked very much like a panicked reaction, the Tories announced late on Monday that they would offer the Lib Dems a referendum on AV as well.

This might not go down well with the party faithful, but there is a recognition that if the Lib Dems are going to secure a new voting system anyway, better that it should come from a Conservative-led government rather than agreed between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and several minor parties, who will want even more proportional systems.

Several media outlets are insisting that proportional representation is somehow on the table – it isn't, at least not in its pure party-list form.

The STV system - which is 'more proportional' but not exactly party list PR - is the Lib Dems preferred solution, and they know even that is a huge stretch.

They are unlikely to accept brutish AV (as the Tories and Labour both propose), although would accept AV-plus whereby constituency results are augmented by party lists (as in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament) to make the overall result more proportional.

One question is whether the Lib Dems will push further, and risk the concessions they have already won in trying to secure more. The Lib Dems will also be asking themselves about the political cost of supporting Brown followed by coalition with a new Labour leader who did not face the country as such.

Gary Gibbon on the 'Dutch auction'
"What is on the table for the Liberal Democrats is this referendum on the AV system - which the Tories have put there.

"They're also offering fixed term Parliaments - very important to the Lib Dems.

"Labour has put on the table a whipped vote in the Commons on AV and a referendum separate to that on proportional representation."

Or the cost if their members and voters feel betrayed that voting against the Conservatives still gave David Cameron an office in Number 10. And will either option secure the support of 75 per cent of MPs and the Federal Executive, or will a ballot of Lib Dem members nationally be required?

Labour will be wondering whether their delaying tactic really might deliver a coalition with the Lib Dems and minor parties, and indeed whether this is 'a good election to win'.

Some Labour supporters are suggesting that with savage cuts needed to the deficit, the possibility of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervention, and the continued trouble with the euro-zone, whether a party that has had 13-years in power might be better recharging its batteries in Opposition, and electing a new leader to renew the party without the burden of Prime Ministerial Office.

The Conservatives face a new concern. Having come so close to a deal, they are now cognisant that Labour have not given up on keeping power, and are prepared to be much more reckless in securing Nick Clegg's support than they have been.

How many more concessions must they make before coalition looks unfavourable? And how long would such an administration last if the Lib Dems demand a fixed length before dissolution?

Most crucially, how tolerant of Cameron's progressive brand of Conservatism will the right of the party be if it fails to deliver the power that it promised?

The criticism of the softer centrism during the campaign was muted – it might find its voice if the party is looking at another term on the Opposition benches.

One thing is clear, if electoral reform is passed by a referendum and then Parliament, and if Hung Parliaments become more common – we should be prepared for this model of government forming to be much more common in the years to come.

Irrespective of the constitutional and democratic merits and demerits, no-one can deny it will make politics ever more interesting to follow.

Greg Callus is the deputy editor of and co-author of the Guide to the 2010 election.

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