Who runs Britain?
seen anything quite like it. Last night’s inconclusive general election was remarkable enough, producing as it did the first hung parliament since 1974. But it was matched for drama by the ensuing spectacle of the three main party leaders setting out their preferred paths towards some kind of strong and stable government, and doing so in public.
First up, on the morning of May 7th, was Nick Clegg. Dejected at his Liberal Democrats’ surprisingly poor showing at the polls, he reiterated his rule of thumb that the party boasting the most votes in the country and seats in Parliament must be given the first shot at forming a government. That, he acknowledged, meant the Conservatives. It was a coded invitation to the Tories to bid for the support of his 57 MPs in running the country.
But before David Cameron, the Tory leader, could respond, Gordon Brown appeared outside 10 Downing Street, which he can still call home. After conceding that it was right for Mr Clegg to talk to Mr Cameron first, the prime minister stressed that he would be waiting with his own offer for the Lib Dem leader if that conversation fizzled out. A referendum on a new voting system, the third party’s immemorial cause, would be on the table.
Mr Cameron, when he made his own appearance soon after, did not offer that much (though he did propose a cross-party committee on electoral reform, which he tends to define broadly to include things like shaking up the House of Lords and giving voters the power to evict their local MP between elections). More profoundly, he floated the idea of governing in co-operation with the Lib Dems, either as a minority Tory administration with Mr Clegg’s backing on common causes such as schools reform, or even as a blue-yellow coalition (though the actual c-word was used by his aides only afterwards, and even then carefully).
This open courtship of Mr Clegg by the two main party leaders has now moved behind closed doors. Mr Cameron spoke to him not long after setting out his stall to the media. Further conversations between the two are expected over the weekend. Regardless of how these fare (early noises from Mr Clegg’s camp are optimistic), he must heed his party’s MPs and executive before proceeding with any deal. And many Lib Dem activists lean towards Labour. Their leader will surely talk also to Mr Brown.
Mr Clegg's position is as confounding as it is pivotal. He is being offered by Labour a shot at the voting reform his party craves more than anything, but at the cost of propping up a government that voters have rejected. His other, sketchier option is potentially to exercise real power (cabinet seats for Mr Clegg and some of his colleagues could, if he drives a hard bargain, be on offer from Mr Cameron) but forego a clear route to achieving proportional representation. His liberal take on issues such as defence and immigration was partly his electoral undoing; and he does not have the mandate to challenge Mr Cameron’s probable refusal to change Tory policy on those issues.
Mr Cameron’s predicament is not much less fraught, though. Many in his party regard his failure to win an outright majority in Parliament as an indictment of his campaign strategy, leadership style and closest aides, and are preparing to say so in public over the coming days. Any substantial concessions he offers to the Lib Dems will rile them even more. Even his vague flirtation with electoral-system tinkering is already being cursed in a party dead set against anything that sniffs of proportional representation, which they think could shut their party out of government indefinitely. The notion of Lib Dems taking ministerial positions earmarked for Conservatives is hugely provocative to his own side, which is why Mr Cameron’s preference will be for minority rule.
Ironically, it is only Mr Brown who has some cause for serenity. If he fails to win over Mr Clegg, he will only endure the fate that has seemed inevitable anyway for a long time: his departure from office. And by easily avoiding a third-place finish for Labour, his electoral performance may be remembered as about as good as an unpopular leader of a recession-ravaged, 13-year-old government could have managed.
On the eve of polling day, the Tory leader told the electorate that they must vote for his party on Thursday to get a new government on Friday. Not enough of them did. Mr Cameron is still very likely to be Britain’s new prime minister. But it could be Monday, or even later, before we know for certain.
rule of thumb:凭感觉的方法，单凭经验的方法