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Will the Liberal Democrats' Recent Ecstasy Quickly Turn to Agony?

Update: British politics is entering an extraordinary phase. The minority Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, failed to make a breakthrough, but the fact of a hung parliament means he is now the subject of heavy political petting. The defeated but not yet resigned prime minister, Gordon Brown, tempted him at lunchtime with early legislation on a wide program of political reform -- to which he has hitherto been averse.

An hour later, the Tories' David Cameron was offering serious intimacy on everything from the economy, taxation, education and social policy to the Liberal Democrat crown jewels of political reform. Clegg emphasized earlier that the party with the most votes and seats had the right to first try to govern. He thus gave Cameron his first smile. But he must decide, and quickly. Then his moment of power will have passed.

Cameron's offer to Clegg went far further than many expected. The Tory leader clearly wants a "stable and secure" administration to convince the country and the markets that someone is in charge. He appeared to offer close policy co-operation, not on a take it or leave it basis but in a specific forged alliance.

While Cameron went out of his way to calm his party's looming fears on Europe, immigration and defense, he could hardly have been more accommodating to Clegg on other matters. The door is clearly ajar to at least a referendum on electoral reform, whatever that might mean. No one can force the Conservative party, let alone the public, to vote for it and it is unlikely to pass. But if that secures Clegg's support through what will be a turbulent first year of a parliament it would surely be something Cameron and his colleagues could swallow without jeopardizing their seats. The present electoral system hardly favors them at present.

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It is almost certain that, whatever Clegg agrees, will not be deliverable over more than a few months. The strains in any parliamentary alliance will mean that Cameron and Clegg will find themselves torn this way and that by their backbenchers and parties in the country. But at present Cameron's has put the most plausible offer on the table. He and Clegg have yet to meet. I would predict a brief but torrid love affair.

The British electorate has spoken but has choked on its words. Labour's glad confident morning of 1997 has clearly ended in defeat under Gordon Brown. David Cameron has rescued his Tory party from 18 years of decay but not convincingly, and not enough to give him a secure parliamentary majority.

The third party that promised so much, the Liberal Democrats, has failed to make a breakthrough, and yet it must decide which party to support in office -- and with a poor mandate for so important a decision. The first-past-the-post electoral system has met its Waterloo. Britain has not been given emphatic government just when that was most required. It has been given the parliamentary mess most feared by opponents of electoral reform -- or the negotiating base most desired by its advocates. British politics now departs the hustings and enters the old smoke-filled rooms of Westminster.

Since Cameron cannot yet be sure of the confidence of the House of Commons, the first move clearly lies with Gordon Brown as incumbent prime minister. He is down but not out. He has clearly been beaten by the Conservatives but is entitled to see if he can form an anti-Tory alliance with the Liberal Democrats and possibly the so-called Celtic fringe. It would have to defy the bald fact that the Tories are certain to be the largest party, and most disciplined in the whipping cauldron of a hung parliament.

The Tories will also the Liberal Democrats and nationalists their intentions, and with the added moral authority of being the party that has clearly been preferred by the electorate. The nation will simply have to wait while the minority parties make up their minds. That is what "voting for a hung parliament" means.

Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats now have their moment of power, but it will be just a moment. They have failed to win enough votes to carry an overwhelming moral case for electoral reform, yet they have not supplanted Labour on the centre-left. They may pray for the Tory lead to be big enough to leave the decision in the hands of the nationalists, but that seems unlikely. Whatever they decide they may well split over it, and may have to defend at an early re-election. Their recent ecstasy will swiftly turn to agony.