On the fifth day after the election, Conservative Party leader David Cameron ran out of patience. "So, it is now, I believe, decision time," he told reporters waiting outside his home on Tuesday morning. The Liberal Democrats, he made clear, must indicate which direction they were leaning. But on Tuesday, the Lib Dems had an appointment with Labour.
Cameron wasn't the only one whose nerves were frayed by the first coalition negotiations in Great Britain since World War II. Stock traders in the City found the waiting interminable, as did the media. How long would it take the three parties to come up with a government?
In the end, though, everything went quickly. On Tuesday evening at 7:18 p.m. local time, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah went before the cameras at 10 Downing Street and announced his resignation. Earlier in the day, it had become clear that Labour talks with the Lib Dems were going nowhere. The last possibility for Brown to stay in power had thus vanished.
His voice cracking, Brown thanked his wife Sarah and their two children John and Fraser, saying now that he was giving up "the second most important job I could ever hold," he had more time to devote to the most important -- that of being a husband and father. He said he was proud of the fact that Britain, under 13 years of Labour rule, had become "fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous, more just." Brown, whose relationship with the country's military has not always been the best, also paid tribute to the British armed forces.
A Waiting Jaguar
It was a conciliatory departure following three difficult years at Downing Street. "Thank you and goodbye," he said at the end of his short speech, before being applauded by the gathered reporters, most of whom had sharply criticized Brown during his term in office.
The four Browns then walked hand-in-hand to a waiting Jaguar, which brought them to Buckingham Palace so that the outgoing prime minister could formally present his resignation to the queen.
Not long afterwards, his successor likewise made his way to the palace where the queen asked him to form a new government. The last round of talks between the Tories and the Lib Dems had taken five and a half hours; at the end, Britain had its first coalition government in 70 years. Together with his pregnant wife Samantha, Cameron then went directly to 10 Downing Street.
Cameron said that he and Nick Clegg, the head of the Liberal Democrats, had agreed to set aside the two parties' differences and address the "difficult decisions" that lie ahead. Britain's new prime minister did not immediately offer details of the coalition agreement between the two parties.
Later in the evening, the queen granted her approval to the naming of Clegg as deputy prime minister. Conservative Party member George Osborne is to become finance minister with the task of bringing Britain's hopelessly imbalanced budget under control. The former Tory head and well-known euroskeptic William Hague will take over as foreign secretary and Liam Fox will take charge of defense. The Lib Dems are likely to receive four cabinet positions.
At 43, Cameron is Britain's youngest prime minister in 198 years, the 12th to take the government's helm under Queen Elizabeth II. The first was Winston Churchill.
Fashioning a government following last week's elections -- which gave the Conservatives 306 seats in parliament, Labour 258 and the Lib Dems 57 -- proved difficult, at least by British standards. Normally, the change in power takes place within hours of elections. But this time it was different. Facing a hung parliament, Brown, Cameron and Clegg first had to come up with a coalition government, as is standard procedure in most European countries.
In Britain, however, the back-and-forth of coalition negotiations is viewed with a certain degree of disgust and mistrust. Analysts warned about how markets might be affected and much of the conservative press expressed disdain for the foreign custom of coalition negotiations. "If that's the 'new politics' (Clegg) had in mind, I find it pretty depressing," commented Malcolm Rifkind, foreign minister in the late 1990s under John Major.
The British watched with trepidation as negotiating teams from the three parties tried to hammer out an agreement. First, the Lib Dems met with the Tories for three days in succession. The talks appeared to go so well that many expected there to be an agreement at the beginning of this week. But the Lib Dems proved dissatisfied with the offer they received from the Conservatives, particularly as it pertained to the issue of electoral reform, a topic that is near and dear to the Lib Dems because of the additional power it may grant to third parties.
As a result, Clegg extended his feelers to Labour and met secretly with Brown, who cleared the way for talks with his surprise Monday announcement that he was resigning. Conservatives accused Clegg of double dealing.
But the Lib Dem's flirt with Labour proved short lived; by Tuesday afternoon, the Tories and the Liberals were together again. The Conservatives had found a way to improve their offer and opened the possibility of holding a referendum on electoral reform. That, the party warned, was its "final offer."
The Lib Dems took it.
The back-and-forth shows just how difficult the decision to form a government with the Conservatives was. For the Lib Dems, it came down to choosing the lesser of two evils; forming a government with a Labour Party which had clearly lost the faith of British voters would have been difficult to defend.
But the pact with the Conservatives is certainly not one of conviction. On the one hand, the coalition is an accurate reflection of last Thursday's election results, it has a stable majority in parliament and represents a new beginning after 13 years of a Labour government. But there are a number of issues which could prove divisive. Much of Cameron's party would prefer to hold on to the first-past-the-post electoral system rather than the proportional representation the Lib Dems want. In addition, the two parties have never been particularly friendly and are divided on a host of issues, including immigration, the European Union, nuclear power, nuclear weapons and foreign military missions. The list is long.
Potential for Conflict High
But in the end, the Liberal Democrats felt that a coalition with Labour -- a "coalition of losers" as the British press called it -- would have been an even greater risk. Even leading Labour politicians were warning against such a pact. Former home secretaries John Reid and David Blunkett both recommended that Labour go into opposition to renew itself after electoral defeat.
Within Labour itself, the struggle for party leadership will now begin; the final choice will be made at the Labour Party conference in September. The current favorite is former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who has long been seen as Brown's crown prince. One of Brown's most loyal lieutenants Ed Balls and deputy party leader Harriet Harman are also rumored to have leadership ambitions. And observers are not ruling out a duel between the brothers, David and Ed Miliband: Ed was the environmental minister under Brown.
How Long Can it Last?
Currently, though, all eyes are on the new government. Will it be as stable as Cameron and Clegg have promised? The personal chemistry between the two party leaders seems to be good. In terms of life experience, the two leaders, both 43, are similar. Both come from middle-class homes and are products of Britain's elite education system. Other than that though? There are so many predetermined areas of possible conflict that the first fight between the coalition partners cannot be too far off. Especially because the country is in need of restructuring. Cameron himself has said so: "This is going to be hard and difficult work," he said in his first speech as prime minister, adding that his role was to help the country "face up to our really big challenges, to confront our problems, to take difficult decisions, to lead people through those difficult decisions so that together we can reach better times ahead."
But British commentators are already expressing doubts about how long the coalition can last. The life span of a hung parliament -- where no single party has a clear majority -- is usually counted in months rather than years in the UK.
So the outcome of this experiment cannot be predicted. One thing is certain though: Nick Clegg will go down in the history books anyway. He is the first Liberal Democrat minister since Archibald Sinclair.
Sinclair was Winston Churchill's secretary of state for air, in charge of the British air force. Way back in 1945.