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Tories offer voting change referendum to Lib Dems

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 May 2010

The Conservatives offer the Liberal Democrats a referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) in a final offer to Nick Clegg's party, as Lib Dem MPs call for "clarification" of any party deal with the Tories.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg resume power-sharing talks today

The Conservatives last-ditch attempt to forge their own deal with the Liberal Democrats came just hours after Gordon Brown announced he would resign as Labour leader, and launching a leadership campaign for the autumn.

The Tory offer came as the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said his party asked to begin formal coalition talks with Labour.

The AV system, which involves voters numbering candidates in order of preference in single-member constituencies, was backed by Labour in its election manifesto but falls well short of the truly proportional systems preferred by Lib Dems.

Speaking after David Cameron had addressed a meeting of Tory MPs, the shadow foreign secretary William Hague said his party would offer a referendum on AV in an attempt to reach a deal over the next government.

"We will offer to the Liberal Democrats in a coalition government the holding of a referendum on the alternative vote system, so that the people of this country can decide what the best electoral system is for the future," he said.

"The choice before the Liberal Democrats ... is whether to go in with the Labour Party in a government that would not be stable or secure, because it would rely on other minor parties for any parliamentary majority at all; that would have a second unelected prime minister in a row - something we believe would be unacceptable to the great majority of people in this country; - and which would impose voting reform without any consultation with the people of the country, something we believe to be profoundly undemocratic.

Channel 4 News political editor Gary Gibbon said the deals being offered the Lib Dems were like a "Dutch auction", after the Tories learnt of Mr Brown's announcement during a second shadow cabinet meeting to discuss new proposals to put to the Lib Dems.

"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."

Independent political analyst Greg Callus writes for Channel 4 News
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. STV (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), though would accept AV+ 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 Tories revealed tonight that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had spoken again by telephone for about 25 minutes.

Mr Hague said the Lib Dem leader had not said anything "definitive" about the latest Tory offer.

The shadow foreign secretary also said that the Lib Dems now wanted a formal coalition government with either Labour or the Tories. "They want to make a coalition with one side or the other," he said.

"Clarification call"
Earlier Lib Dem MPs had demanded further "clarification" on education funding, fairer taxes and voting reform in relation to any potential deal with the Tories.

In a statement to journalists, David Laws said the "central priority must be to form a strong and stable government in the national interest".

Mr Laws said the party had agreed its leader Nick Clegg would also continue to listen to representations from Prime Minister Gordon Brown while clarification is sought about the offer from the Tories.

On talks with the Tories, Mr Laws said: "We have very good discussions with them and we have made very good progress, and the parliamentary party were very pleased to hear about some of the proposals that have been made by the Conservative Party and that has been in a wide variety of areas."

The development came on a day of further talks between the parties amid claims they were close to agreeing a deal.

The Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had spoken to Mr Cameron by telephone for 30 minutes before their negotiating teams resumed talks in Whitehall.

Tory sources also said the two leaders had later met face-to-face, in a conversation that one source said, "went well".

For more Channel 4 News coverage of the election aftermath
- Poll of Polls: the polls got little right
- Lib-Cons deal spurs Facebook fury and flash mobs

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague had emerged from the Cabinet Office this morning to announce that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat teams charged with negotiating a power-sharing deal had made "further progress" and were "working really well together".

Speaking this morning outside his London home, the Liberal Democrat leader said that the aim was to reach a decision "as soon as possible".

"I don't think a prolonged period of uncertainty is a good thing," he said. "But I hope people equally understand that it would be better to get the decision right rather than rushing into something that won't stand the test of time."

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, had appeared upbeat as he left home, telling reporters: "I am always positive."

The Conservatives had earlier offered the Lib Dems a plan to reduce the number of MPs and equalise the size of constituencies, but so far only a cross-party committee of inquiry over the future of the voting system.

One undertaking the Lib Dems appear to be seeking is for a fixed-term deal - so that Mr Cameron could not call a "snap" election at a time of his choosing to maximise the chances of achieving a majority Conservative government.

The talks follow last week's election result which left the Conservatives short of an overall majority in the House of Commons.

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