3rd Place Party May Be Real Winner In Britain
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The day after a general election in Britain usually brings scenes of triumph, as one party or another claims the prime minister's residence on Downing Street. But there were no such scenes in London today. For the first time in 36 years, the election was inconclusive.
As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, the Conservative Party got the most votes but not enough seats in Parliament to form a majority government.
ROB GIFFORD: Conservative Party leader David Cameron had hoped to be moving in to 10 Downing Street today, instead he was giving a news conference about doing a deal with one of his rivals. The Conservatives took a hundred seats from the ruling Labor Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown but were just 20 seats short of a majority. So it was time to reach out to the third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, to try to form some kind of alliance.
Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Conservative Party): I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems, the debt crisis, our deep social problems and our broken political system.
GIFFORD: That must have been music to the ears of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader. He'd surged in the polls before the vote yesterday, but on the night his support evaporated. Despite that, Clegg has still ended up as kingmaker. And to the surprise of many, he, today, suggested he would rather join a coalition or at least an informal deal with David Cameron than Gordon Brown.
Mr. NICHOLAS CLEGG (Leader, Liberal Democrats; Member of Parliament): It seems this morning that it's the Conservative Party that has more votes and more seats though not an absolute majority. And that is why I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest.
GIFFORD: The problem is that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have very different visions for Britain's future. The Conservatives want to keep Europe at arm's length, maintain the Trident nuclear missile system and put a cap on immigration. The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-Europe party in Britain. They want to drop the Trident nuclear system and have called for an amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
But David Cameron says there is room for cooperation on such issues as education and the environment, and he held out the caret of at least, perhaps, discussing what the Lib Dems really want - voting reform and a switch to proportional representation.
Meanwhile, the man who lost the election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was still in Number 10 Downing Street and suggesting that his Labor Party could also do a deal with the Liberal Democrats.
Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg should clearly be entitled to take as much time as they feel necessary. Clearly, should the discussions between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg come to nothing, then I would, of course, be prepared to discuss with Mr. Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties.
GIFFORD: Former editor of The Observer newspaper, Will Hutton, says Nick Clegg now has a huge amount of leverage.
Mr. WILL HUTTON (Former Editor, The Observer): Clegg knows that he can go to Brown and govern the country, and it would have a majority of the votes cast, more than 52 percent of the votes cast will be behind that coalition. This is a real - he can, you know, he's got real muscle behind his negotiations with Cameron.
GIFFORD: Some dispute that saying it would be political suicide for Nick Clegg to now support Gordon Brown after Brown suffered such massive losses yesterday at the polls. Whatever the outcome, Will Hutton says it's a momentous point in modern British history.
Mr. HUTTON: This is the most fateful few hours in our national life for 30, 40 years. It doesnt get bigger than this.
GIFFORD: Meanwhile, shares fell on the London Stock Exchange today as did the pound sterling, a reminder of the economic problems facing Britain at the moment, a huge deficit that will require massive cuts in spending and likely tax hikes by whoever becomes prime minister.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg spoke on the phone today as their lieutenants huddled behind closed doors this evening, looking to have a deal in place before Monday. Some observers were asking who on earth would want the job anyway.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.