British Parties Puzzle Over Hung Parliament

The leaders of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are huddled behind closed doors Saturday, trying to work out some kind of coalition so that power can transfer to a new government. On Thursday, Britain voted, but for the first time in 36 years, the result was what's known as a "hung parliament," where no single party has the majority. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Rob Gifford in London.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The leaders of Britain's Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are meeting behind closed doors today, trying to see if they can work out some kind of coalition so that power can transfer to a new government. Britain voted on Thursday, but the result was for the first time in 36 years what's known as a hung parliament, where no single party has the majority. NPR's Rob Gifford joins us from London.

Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Scott. Great to be here.

SIMON: And they don't really hang anybody, right? That's just a term.

GIFFORD: That is just a term. I think from this kind of idea of a hung jury. I think that's...

SIMON: Yes, yes, yes. I know. So David Cameron and Nick Clegg, this is -would seem to be an odd couple, or is it?

GIFFORD: Well, it is a slightly odd couple. In fact, all the focus really is on Nick Clegg today. David Cameron, leader of the Tories, the Conservatives, got the most seats, the most votes in Thursday's election. But it's Nick Clegg who's turning out to be the kingmaker -this little-known politician, the leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats.

They've always been the bridesmaids, the also-rans in British politics. And all the focus is on him today and the talks about - with the conservatives and how they're going to put together a coalition. This is what Nick Clegg this morning, said this morning as he was going into those talks.

Mr. NICK CLEGG (Liberal Democrats): People deserve a good stable government. And that's why I'm very keen that Liberal Democrats should enter into any discussions with other parties, as we are doing, in a constructive spirit. And that's precisely what we'll do in the coming hours and days.

GIFFORD: It's all very well, of course, to talk about that constructive spirit. But he and indeed David Cameron have got some work on their hands, I think, to sell this to their parties. Not only have they got to work on the constructive spirit between the parties, but I think today's job, after yesterday's decisions to start the talk, is to try and sell this to their party rump, the base of their party activists.

Because I think a lot of people in both parties feel, you're kidding, we're not going to do a deal with them. The Liberal Democrats, despite their name, are in the center and the Tories are much further on the right.

SIMON: Well, yes. If you followed the campaign they wouldn't seem to agree about much of anything, really. So aside from that, what are the sticking points as they try to make a deal?

GIFFORD: Well, that's right. And I think that's why everyone, not least the markets here yesterday, are rather nervous that there is a huge gap between them. They're not the most natural allies. In fact, the Liberal Democrats would be more natural allies with the Labour Party of Gordon Brown. And indeed, if these talks collapse with the Conservatives, it's still a possibility that they could go and talk to Labour.

As far as the difference is concerned, it's everything. Europe, the Tories are very real Europhobes. They don't like Europe. The Liberal Democrats are Europhiles. They love Europe. Defense and immigration, the Conservatives think the Liberal Democrats are soft on both those issues. They've said they can cooperate on things like environment and education.

The real key thing, though, Scott, is voting reform. The Liberal Democrats, the reason they're the also-rans, along with all the other parties, apart from the two main parties, is because of the British system. First past the post, winner takes all. They want voting reform to a proportional system like the European countries have. And it's very, very doubtful that the Tories are going to give any leeway on that at all.

SIMON: Are the Lib Dems a little vulnerable to giving some ground, though, because if they can't reach a deal they might have walked away from the best chance they've had to win anything in a couple of generations?

GIFFORD: Absolutely. And that's really the question now, to put it bluntly - as one blogger put it, you know, how much of our soul can we sell? You know, to go down the road and to share power, it's so tempting. It's such an offer. They might not get this chance again. But how much of your cherished ideals and the things that you stood on in this election can you give up if you're a Liberal Democrat member of parliament? How much can you give up just for that taste of power? And that is the key thing this weekend that they're talking about so that we can have a prime minister by Monday.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Thanks so much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Scott.

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