Nick Clegg is holding intense talks with David Cameron today, and it looks like these negotiations could go on for days. At the heart of the complications is this fact - even if the two men can work out an agreement and trust between them on how they would join together to form a government, they would still need to get that agreement approved by their parties. And given the big political differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, that could be a herculean task.
Many Americans I've talked to have been confused about what exactly is going on here, and I can certainly sympathize. First they were hearing that this was the Liberal Democrats' year, that following the televised debates the "Clegg effect" was going to transform this election and make the UK's third party politically relevant for the first time in decades. But then when the results came in Thursday night, Americans heard that the Liberal Democrats had suffered a stunning defeat, actually losing seats in the parliament. Oh well, so much for that then. But wait, come Friday they learn that the Liberal Democrats are now the most important factor in these post-election days, as they will be selecting who will be prime minister. So how does someone lose so badly and yet end up selecting who the winner will be?
The most important thing to remember is that though they often seem to forget it, the British have a parliamentary democracy. Though they have a first-past-the-post voting system as if they were a presidential republic, the British do not directly elect their leader. They vote for parties, and the party which obtains the majority of seats in the parliament selects who the prime minister will be. For most of the past century the process has been relatively simple because usually one party easily obtains more seats than all the others combined. But in this election, no party was able to obtain this majority. So, the leaders must now form alliances in order to get above this threshhold. And because there are only three big parties, this means that the smallest party, the Liberal Democrats, will decide who is prime minister based on which of the two main parties they ally with, Labour or the Conservatives.
Politically the Lib Dems are closer to Labour. And because Labour has promised to pursue the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have made a cornerstone of their platform, Labour would be the preferred coalition partner for them. But because the Lib Dems were unable to wrest seats away from the Conservatives in Thursday's vote, a Lib-Lab coalition would not put them over the 326 seats needed for a majority. They would be 11 seats short. So Labour would also have to get MPs from small regional parties to join with them as well.
Clegg is giving Conservative leader David Cameron the first opportunity to form a government because his party obtained the highest number of votes on Thursday. This is against constitutional convention, which gives the sitting prime minister the first opportunity to form a government. But Gordon Brown is wisely sitting aside and letting the Lib-Con talks go forward before making his counter-offer. In the mean time, constitutional convention dictates that the sitting prime minister remains in office until a solution is worked out. This process is completely normal in all other European parliamentary democracies, where coalitions are a normal part of the political process. Indeed, the UK is the only country I know of where the person who wins becomes prime minister just days after the election. In the US a president who has lost reelection remains in office for about 3 months before the new guy takes over!
But this hasn't stopped the British media, and as a consequence the financial markets, from completely freaking out about the uncertainty. The pound plunged yesterday against both the dollar and the euro (luckily I saw this coming and made a big transfer to euros earlier this week). Media commentators are calling this a "political crisis", and the voices of reason pointing out that this is a completely normal process in European parliamentary democracies have been few and far between.
Faustian deal or no faustian deal?
The Liberal Democrats now have a very tough decision to make. Joining a government with the Conservatives would infuriate many of their party members who despise the Conservatives, particularly for their tax, nuclear and EU policies. This afternoon a large group of demonstrators has gathered outside of the Liberal Democrats party headquarters demanding that the Lib Dems refuse to accept any deal without guaranteed electoral reform. But on the other hand, a Lib-Lab coalition government headed by Gordon Brown would be seen as illegitimate by a large amount of the British public because both parties appeared to be rejected by voters on Thursday. Clegg could also decide to sit the whole thing out all together, leaving the Conservatives to form a minority government by themselves that would almost certainly fall within a year.
Whoever ends up forming the next government, winning could feel a lot like losing. Because of the UK's dire financial situation (it's basically drowning in debt in much the same way that Greece is), the next government is going to have to make drastic cuts to the public service sector that will enrage the public. Because these upcoming cuts were not talked about in an honest way by any of the parties during the campaign, it will seem like the governing party does not have a mandate to be making these cuts. The UK could see a return to the strikes that paralyzed the country in the 1970's.
The Lib Dems may be wary of being tied to the government that has to make these unpopular cuts. It certainly might be tempting to leave the Conservatives on their own to meet this fate, and then when the next election comes the Lib Dems can throw up their hands and say they had nothing to do with all of these horrible cuts the Conservatives made. If they had been part of the government that made these cuts, that would be a hard claim to make. Of course, the same goes for any alliance they would make with Labour.
But at the same time, this is a huge opportunity for the Lib Dems to be in government for the first time since the party's modern incarnation was formed a few decades ago. If they walk away, they will be missing out on the opportunity to push through some of their main policy goals, including reform of the tax system and a change in the way Britain votes. Who knows when this opportunity might present itself again, if ever. I wouldn't want to be in Clegg's shoes right now. What a decision!
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown waits in 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence. Today was VE Day, celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. The new prime minister was scheduled to preside over the wreath-laying ceremony this morning. Instead, all three leaders laid wreaths, and then stood uncomfortably next to one another with the cameras focused intensely on them, trying to gleam any insight into the dynamics between them. The private conversations between these three men over the next few days are going to have a tremendous impact on British history.