Conservative Party leader David Cameron appeared to be inching closer to 10 Downing Street and a resolution of the hung parliament yielded by the British election as he resumed talks Monday on forming a coalition government.
Negotiations were going well, said representatives for Mr. Cameron and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party that came in third in the May 6 election and who has the seats to make Cameron the first Conservative prime minister since John Major was ousted in 1997.
But while it was clear that Britons voted for change after 13 years of Labour Party supremacy, the failure of the Conservatives to win an outright majority has left Labour leader Gordon Brown in control at 10 Downing Street in a caretaker role. This was the first British election without a single party in the majority since 1974.
"Britain on hold" and "A nation in limbo" were the Monday morning headlines in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. The newspapers backed the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives respectively during the election.
Predictions varied for when the two parties could ultimately reach an agreement on forming a coalition government, or on a deal to allow the Conservatives to rule as a minority administration. Some suggested that a deadline could be reached today, while others suggested that negotiations could drag on until Thursday. A "minority government" is one in which the party or coalition behind the prime minister does not have have more than 50 percent of the votes in parliament but is tolerated by the opposition.
Lib Dems won only 9 percent of seat with 25 percent of vote
While the Conservatives and Lib Dems share some ground on the economy and taxes, a stumbling block is the Liberal Democrats' desire to reform a British electoral system that gave the party just 9 percent of the seats in Parliament after it had won almost 25 percent of the popular vote. The Conservative rank and file are generally opposed to shifting the United Kingdom's "first past the post" electoral system, similar to the one used in the United States, to the proportional representation sought by the Lib Dems.
Clegg and Cameron have generally avoided public comment on the negotiations. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told the BBC on Monday that Cameron's initial offer of a committee of inquiry into the electoral system was insufficient.
"I don't believe that anybody can now establish a new government who is deaf to the calls from the British people for reform to our political system," said Lord Ashdown, who became the UN’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002 after leaving politics.
On the other side John Major, the former Conservative prime minister who took Britain into the 1991 Gulf War, cautioned both parties against embracing "partisan self-interest."
Mr. Major warned the Liberal Democrats against seeking an alliance with Labour, now the second-largest party, arguing that many within the party's ranks were opposed to electoral change.
Ivor Gaber, a professor of broadcast journalism at London's City University whose principle area of interest is the relationship between the media and the political process, said Major, Ashdown, and others were playing important proxy roles for the real leaders in creating the right atmosphere for talks during intense media and public pressure to form a government.
“The key things is the concept of ‘deniability.’ It’s important to have someone who can send out a message for you, so that if you take a different position in talks then you won’t have been seen to have acted in bad faith,” said Professor Gaber.
In the case of the Liberal Democrats, for example, it was important to create an atmosphere in which the Labour Party remained interested as a potential alternative partner because it strengthened the smaller party’s hand in the current negotiations.
Aside from figures sending out messages that could be helpful to negotiators, he added that other figures – such as those representing specific wings of either party – were also seeking to influence the negotiations by making public statements.