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Postelection: Britain Locked In Political Standoff

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Rob Gifford joins us now from London to sort this all out. Good morning.

ROB GIFFORD: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So break it down for us briefly. Even though the Conservative Party got the most seats, that doesn't automatically give them the government or their leader, David Cameron, the prime minister's seat.

GIFFORD: That's right. There are 650 seats in the British parliament, and so anyone wants to be prime minister, their party has to get 326 of them. David Cameron is about...

MONTAGNE: Fifty-one percent, 51 percent.

GIFFORD: Fifty-one percent, just over 50 percent, exactly. And David Cameron has got rough - about 20 short of that. So he doesn't have a majority, simple as that. He needs, therefore, to go into some kind of alliance with one of the other smaller parties. It's clear that Labour is defeated here, about 100 seats Labour has lost to the Conservatives. But David Cameron is most interested in the Liberal Democrats, the centrist party that everyone was thinking might do well in this. In fact, their vote, in the end, evaporated - rather, they didn't do very well at all. But their leader, Nick Clegg, still could be the kingmaker in all of this. And he is very important, and he came out this morning and made a statement about which way he's leaning, towards allying with the Conservatives or with the Labour Party, and this is what he said.

NICK CLEGG: It seemed this morning that it's the Conservative Party that has more votes and more seats, though not an absolute majority. And that is why I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest.

MONTAGNE: And again, that's Nick Clegg, who's leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats. Now, how did David Cameron, the man he was speaking with, about the leader of the Conservative Party, how did he respond?

GIFFORD: Well, David Cameron came out quite soon after that and also made a much longer statement with a lot more details. And here is something about - of what he said.

DAVID CAMERON: I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems - the debt crisis, our deep social problems, and our broken political system.

GIFFORD: So David Cameron there, opening up an offer to the Liberal Democrats, who are not natural allies. The Liberal Democrats would be much more natural allies of the Labour Party. But the Conservatives have got more of the vote and are more likely to form the next government. Cameron said we can work together on certain things, like education and the environment, even possibly political reform, electoral reform, which the Liberal Democrats want. But he said really there's very little room for negotiation on things like Europe, defense and immigration.

MONTAGNE: So what happens now? Will the current prime minister, Gordon Brown, try and bring the Liberal Democrats over to his side or will he concede?

GIFFORD: Very good question. And Gordon Brown has come out and made a speech himself on the steps of 10 Downing Street. It is by constitutional convention - Gordon Brown can choose, it's up to him to try and form some kind of alliance, some kind of coalition, but he's trying to look very big and prime ministerial and not look petty and partisan. And so have a listen to what he said.

GORDON BROWN: Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg should clearly be entitled to take as much time as they feel necessary. Clearly, should the discussions between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg come to nothing, then I would, of course, be prepared to discuss with Mr. Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties.

GIFFORD: So the prime minister, Gordon Brown, trying to, you know, seem that he is being magnanimous and he could consider all sorts of things. The crucial thing to throw into all of this, though, is the time factor. We saw what happened on Wall Street yesterday. The economy, the financial situation in Europe is really bad, and so there needs to be a decision soon on this, at least by the end of the weekend so that we can know who the prime minister is, and they can get on with solving these financial and economic problems.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Thanks.

GIFFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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