The leaders of Britain’s Conservatives and Liberal Democrats met for over an hour of talks on Saturday aimed at resolving the stalemate from this week’s election.
David Cameron’s Conservatives won the most seats in Thursday’s parliamentary election but fell short of a majority and are seeking the support of Nick Clegg’s centre-left Liberal Democrats to end 13 years of Labour rule.
The parties are under pressure to reach some kind of agreement before the new Parliament reconvenes and financial markets become impatient for signs of decisive action to tackle Britain’s record budget deficit, running at more than 11% of national output.
Cameron and Clegg met for about 70 minutes at a government building in London, the Lib Dems said. The Conservatives confirmed the meeting.
“Their meeting was amicable and constructive and their teams will meet tomorrow as planned,” a Lib Dem spokesperson said.
Those talks are scheduled for 10am GMT.
It is unlikely a deal could be reached by Monday, a Conservative spokesperson said earlier, noting that the party’s new members of Parliament, who will be briefed on the negotiations, would not meet until Monday evening.
A tight election race produced the first inconclusive result since 1974, with voters pushing Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour into second place but failing to give Cameron and his centre-right party the outright majority they sought.
Cameron wrote to party supporters before news of his meeting with Clegg was disclosed, saying he believed there were areas in which the Conservatives could give ground, such as reducing taxes for the poor.
“Inevitably, these negotiations will involve compromise,” he wrote.
“I hope we can sort things out as quickly as possible, for the good of the country. But we won’t rush into any agreement
The greatest stumbling block to a deal may well be electoral reform, a long cherished ambition of the Lib Dems who would win far more seats if Britain switched from its winner-takes-all system to proportional representation. The Conservatives are firmly opposed to such a change.
Clegg, who has to win his party’s support before any deal can go ahead, was locked in discussions with party officials throughout most of Saturday, which his chief of staff said had been “positive and productive”.
Financial markets, already rattled by a debt crisis in Greece, want a new government to be formed quickly so it can set about reducing the budget deficit swiftly and decisively.
The pound, British government bonds and shares all fell on Friday when it became clear the Conservatives would not have a parliamentary majority. But sterling and bonds recouped early losses on the prospect of a deal with the Lib Dems.
Brown remains prime minister pending a government deal, and has said he will talk to the Lib Dems about an alliance if their negotiations with the Conservatives run aground.
A Labour MP, John Mann, called for Brown to step aside, saying he had cost the party votes at the election and would rob such an alliance of credibility.
Senior Lib Dem MP David Laws told reporters the party was determined to play its part in delivering a “stable and good government”.
“We are keen to do this as quickly as possible but I think artificial timescales don’t help in making the right decisions,” he said.
Several hundred protesters chanted outside the Lib Dems’ headquarters, urging them to push for reform of an electoral system that favours the two largest parties.
“Reforming politics is one of the reasons I went into politics,” Clegg told the crowd.
Deal or no deal?
Cameron left open the format a deal might take when he offered on Friday to work with the Lib Dems.
This could be a coalition, a rarity in Britain, but is more likely to involve a pact in which the Lib Dems agree to support a Conservative-led minority government in implementing an agreed legislative programme, in return for concessions.
Senior members of both parties met on Friday night.
Another key hurdle is agreement on the pace of lowering the budget deficit. The Conservatives have pledged to start cutting it immediately but the Lib Dems say this could harm Britain’s recovery from a deep recession in 2008-2009.
Britain’s role in the European Union, immigration and defence are also likely to cause disagreement.
If the Lib Dem/Conservative talks fail, a deal between Clegg’s party and Labour is possible, but more complicated as the two parties combined would still not have enough MPs to command a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. – Reuters