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.
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.