Talks between Britain’s opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to form a new government continued apace on Monday amid signs that the ruling Labour Party was preparing an exit strategy for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
However, as the political horse-trading continued at a frantic pace in a gripping political drama, there was little certainty as to what the final outcome of the post-election negotiations would be.
Last Thursday’s election resulted in what is known as a hung parliament, a situation where neither of the two big parties has an outright majority.
As a result, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has emerged as the new “kingmaker” of British politics — even though the “Cleggmania” he sparked in the campaign failed to translate into vote gains.
Mr. Clegg and Conservative leader David Cameron were busy on Monday seeking approval from their parliamentary parties of a possible deal on political cooperation discussed by their negotiating teams over the last four days.
It remains open as to whether any agreement would result in a formal coalition government or in Liberal issue-by-issue support for a Conservative minority government.
But the possibility of a Liberal deal with the ruling Labour Party also remained an option.
The BBC reported on Monday that the Liberal Democrat negotiating team had met senior Labour figures “in secret” over the weekend while the talks with the Conservatives were going on.
At the heart of such contacts would have been the possibility of an alternative deal for a “progressive alliance” between Labour and the Lib Dems who are known, however, to be keen to extract a prior pledge on the departure of Mr. Brown.
Senior Labour Cabinet members had suggested to the Liberals that Mr. Brown could remain Prime Minister for a transitional period, but announce his intention to stand down by a specific future date, the BBC said.
“They (Labour) don’t want to hand Brown’s head on a platter, but are keen to work out a timescale for him to go,” a BBC commentator said.
Under constitutional guidelines, a sitting Prime Minister stays in his job until a new government is formed — unless he resigns of his own accord in view of the election arithmetic.
Even though Mr. Brown’s Labour Party came second in the election, with a vote share of just over 29 per cent, the party is still hoping that the Liberals’ talks with the Conservatives — the biggest party — will collapse and Mr. Clegg will come and talk to them.
Mr. Clegg said on Monday the parties were working “flat out” to reach a deal.
William Hague, the leader of the Conservative team, said the talks were “going well” and “specific ideas and proposals” would be on the table on Monday.
Mr. Clegg stressed that a “prolonged period of uncertainty” could be harmful in view of the serious economic situation in Britain and in Europe as a whole.
But he is likely to have a tough task to convince his parliamentarians — and left-liberal grassroots — of any decision to strike a deal with the Conservatives, their traditional ideological enemies.
Senior Liberal party figures have publicly urged Mr. Clegg not to neglect the Lib-Lab option.
In a smart political move, Labour has offered Mr. Clegg much more wide-ranging concessions than the Conservatives on a reform of the majority voting system to some form of proportional representation — a key Liberal demand.
But Mr. Clegg said he would talk to the Conservatives first as the party which won most votes and seats in the election.
Mr. Clegg is also known to have strong reservations about Mr. Brown personally, and is also reluctant for his party to be associated with a government which has been in power for 13 years.
In addition, Labour and the Liberals would not have enough parliamentary seats to form a coalition on their own and would require the backing of a number of smaller parties.
Critics have said such a scenario would make for an unstable government and be a “coalition of losers.” The Conservatives won most seats and votes at the election, but were 20 seats short of the outright majority of 326 seats required to govern alone. The Liberals lost five seats, down to 57. Labour won 258 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.