UK Liberal Democrats mull pact with Conservatives

UK Liberal Democrats mull pact with Conservatives
# 09 May 2010 01:35 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. Britain’s center-left Liberal Democrats debated on Saturday whether to resolve an undecisive election by joining the Conservative party in an unlikely right-wing/center-left coalition that would share common ground on economic policy but split over electoral reform and key issues in foreign affairs, APA reports quoting “Associated Press”.
With 306 seats in the House of Commons, David Cameron’s Conservatives are still 20 short of a bare majority. But if they are backed by the 57 legislators from third-place Liberal Democrats they would have a comfortable cushion for passing legislation.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has said the Conservatives deserve a chance to try to form a government because they won the most seats in Thursday’s voting. The Liberal Democrats announced that their negotiating team would meet with the Conservatives at 1000 GMT (6 a.m. EDT) on Sunday. A senior Liberal Democrat legislator suggested that Wednesday was the deadline for agreement.
The Liberal Democrats — who captured 23 percent of the national vote but only 9 percent of the seats in the House of Commons — want a reformed voting system that would allocate seats in Parliament based on vote share.
An estimated 1,000 demonstrators backing a new system swarmed outside Liberal Democrat headquarters and cheered Clegg as he declared his determination "to use this opportunity to usher in a new politics."
One possible deal is a coalition government, in which the Liberal Democrats would take a few Cabinet posts. Or, the Liberal Democrats could strike a bargain to support a minority Conservative government on key issues. Any deal would require backing from three-fourths of Lib Dem legislators and the same proportion of its executive.
For the time being, Prime Minister Gordon Brown remains in office despite his Labour party’s second-place finish in the election.
A Labour legislator, John Mann, on Saturday called for Brown to resign.
"Gordon Brown has had a good run and whilst he was an excellent chancellor he has been seen as a poor prime minister who is out of touch and aloof. Labour lost votes because of this," Mann said.
Cameron and Clegg share views on the economy and could commit to a tough program of spending cuts aimed at reducing Britain’s record 153 billion-pound ($236 billion) deficit. The pace of austerity measures would to be slower in a coalition than if Cameron had won a majority.
Clegg’s plan to cut taxes for the lowest-paid British workers would likely be taken up in a coalition government, and the partners could agree to scrap a planned rise in National Insurance — a payroll tax levied on employers and their staff.
They would likely agree to take quick action to scrap Britain’s planned national identity card program and reach accord on pushing allies harder for an international deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Though the two parties have wildly different views on foreign affairs, both are committed to keeping British troops in Afghanistan, at least in the short term. Clegg’s party describes itself as a "critical supporter" of the conflict, while Cameron has pledged a withdrawal of British forces within five years.
Both have signaled they may take a more skeptical tone in relations to the White House — Cameron previously attacked as "slavish" the links Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have shared with Washington.
The potential partners have major disagreements over Europe — Clegg’s party is in favor of Britain eventually joining the euro currency, a policy Cameron’s bloc bitterly opposes.
There could be tensions too on how to handle Iran’s nuclear program. The Liberal Democrats say they’ll support targeted sanctions but would not back military action.
A first major test of any alliance would be on Britain’s plan to replace its fleet of nuclear missile-carrying submarines. Clegg opposes the multi-billion plan for a new submarine fleet.
Simon Hughes, a senior Liberal Democrat legislator, said talks among the party’s legislators about the path forward would continue through the weekend.
"There won’t be a deal on the table because the talks have only just begun, but we will discuss where we want to go," Hughes said in a BBC radio interview.
"Everybody in Britain will expect us to be responsible. We know what the timetable is, it’s between now and next Wednesday when Parliament comes back," Hughes said.
Conservative legislator Liam Fox said that rebuilding Britain’s recession-battered economy was the most important issue.
"It would seem to me very strange in an election that was dominated by the economy ... if the government of the U.K. was held to ransom over an issue that the voters did not see as their priority," Fox said in a BBC radio interview.
The election result also offers the Liberal Democrats an opportunity to bargain for a change in a voting system that has given disproportionate influence to the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour.
Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of all votes on Thursday, but only 9 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The seat goes to the candidate with the highest vote in each of 650 districts.
Liberal Democrats advocate a system common in continental Europe in which parties win seats in proportion to their share of the total vote — a system that is much less likely to put one party in a dominating position.
"It would be inconceivable to me for the Liberal Democrats to sign up to anything that fell short of a guarantee of a referendum on reform of the voting system," Labour legislator Ben Bradshaw said on Saturday.
On Friday, Cameron offered the Liberal Democrats a committee of inquiry into the voting system — which wouldn’t necessarily lead to any change.
Brown has offered to legislate for a referendum on a change in the voting system.
Labour has previously encouraged talk of a change to proportional representation, but lost interest after winning a landslide victory in 1997 under Tony Blair.