Gordon Brown Quits a Little: Postelection Chaos Reigns

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Matt Cardy / Getty Images

English Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces on May 10, 2010, outside 10 Downing Street in London, that he will step down as Labour leader


On May 7, Britons awoke to find they had voted themselves a hung Parliament. At 5 p.m. on May 10, they discovered that their unelected Prime Minister, Gordon Brown — who inherited the job from his predecessor, Tony Blair, and led Labour to defeat at the recent election — plans to resign as Labour leader by September but to stay on, at least for the moment, as Prime Minister. Confused? Brits certainly are.

The confusion extends to Britain's political classes. Westminster is a hive of activity, very little of it productive, as Members of Parliament whisper in corners and parliamentary correspondents perfect different ways to say, "Nobody knows how this will all turn out." Admittedly, there's always a degree of controlled chaos on the first Monday after a general election. MPs are shunted into temporary offices as the parties' business managers secretly haggle for their preferred allocation of rooms. This simple transaction often takes as long as a month to conclude. Small wonder, then, that the slightly more complex negotiations to forge a viable government still seem far from reaching a conclusion after three days.

"Bear with us," urged Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, as his team prepared for further discussions with the Conservatives. "All the political parties and the political leaders are working flat-out." An apparent surge in Lib Dem popularity ahead of the elections proved to be a chimera, stranding the party in its usual third place with only 57 seats, vs. the Conservatives' 306 and Labour's 258. Yet with neither of the bigger parties commanding an overall majority, Clegg finds himself courted by Conservative leader David Cameron as well as Brown.

On May 8, Cameron made what he described as a "big, open, comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems to tempt them into coalition or some looser arrangement. Brown and Clegg have also been meeting clandestinely, to discuss Labour's alternative proposal to form a "progressive coalition" that would have to include other, smaller parties. "It is a painful irony that a party which got poked in the eye is now crossing and uncrossing its legs ... and inviting the favors of Dave and Gordon," said London's Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson — a reference to Catherine Tramell, the psychopathic serial killer in Basic Instinct, who memorably crossed and uncrossed her legs to befuddling and scandalous effect.

Quite a few Conservatives fear that the electoral reform the Lib Dems are seeking in exchange for supporting a Cameron-led government could ultimately lead to the annihilation of the Conservative Party. The Lib Dems have long campaigned to replace Britain's first-past-the-post system with proportional representation, or PR. PR would make hung Parliaments the rule rather than the exception — before last week, Britain last returned a hung Parliament in 1974 — and would likely usher in an era of center-left coalitions.

That's why Cameron's offer wasn't really all that big, open or comprehensive, and it helps explain the slow pace of negotiations on the Conservative side. The Conservative leadership has to persuade backbench MPs and its wider base to support any deal with the Lib Dems, and so has offered only a referendum on electoral reform, which would stop short of opening the door to PR and would instead ask Britons to consider a so-called alternative vote system. But the Lib Dem leadership faces an even bigger battle to persuade its activists to back any arrangement that would see them shoring up a potentially unpopular government without extracting firm promises of a change to the voting system.

One possible outcome is that the Lib Dems will agree to give Cameron the necessary backing to form a government and start tackling Britain's billowing budget deficit, without entering into a formal coalition or accepting Cabinet positions.

Yet Labour has not given up hope of a progressive coalition — Conservatives call it the "coalition of losers" — that is favored by the Lib Dem grass roots. One big obstacle to such an arrangement is Brown himself, the most prominent and unpopular of the losers. His promise to go as Labour leader is designed to facilitate formal discussions between Labour and the Lib Dems, who could then potentially work toward a coalition temporarily headed by Prime Minister Brown until his replacement is chosen and installed in 10 Downing Street.

The offer to stand down may have been a noble gesture on Brown's part, but financiers didn't see it that way as the pound tumbled. Stock markets had surged earlier in the day, after E.U. Finance Ministers agreed on a stabilization plan for the euro, but fears of a weak government in Britain being unable to push austerity measures through could undermine confidence. So could undue delay in forming a government.

Ken Clarke, a veteran Conservative MP and former Chancellor of the Exchequer who is expected to play a leading role in any Cameron government, spoke of his concerns in an interview with the BBC. "We need a stable government, we need a strong government," he said. "Otherwise we'll have a bond-market crisis ... We can't fool around talking about electoral reform."

British politicians — and the British public — share his concerns. But for the moment, behind closed doors, just such talks continue.