By Ian Dunt
Gordon Brown could quit as prime minister as early as tonight, if media reports are to be believed.
The Evening Standard is running with the headline: “Gordon Brown quits as PM as Lib-Dem deal falls apart” and no official government soure has stepped forward to deny the story.
A meeting between the Lib Dems and the Tories is currently ongoing at the Cabinet Office. A statement is expected shortly.
Unattributed statements, rumours and assumptions are whirling around Westminster, but there is now little doubt that a Tory-Lib Dewm deal has been secured and that the Labour party will shortly be in opposition.
The reports indicate that the deal would be for a fixed-term parliament.
Other reports suggest the Lib Dems have been given six Cabinet posts and that Nick Clegg will become deputy prime minister, a position previously held by John Prescott but scrapped after Gordon Brown took over.
A note held by Nick Clegg was photographed earlier today by a Guardian journalist which mentioned one Lib Dem for each government department.
Immense crowds have gathered outside the Cabinet Office, with protestors, journalists, and curious tourists mingling together in huge numbers as everyone waits desperately for the two teams to emerge.
Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg will meet with their MPs this evening, Mr Clegg at 19:30 BST and Mr Cameron at 20:00 BST.
The day began with Labour-Lib Dem talks, which became official yesterday after Gordon Brown revealed them in a shock statement announcing his intention to step down as Labour leader.
Those reports appear to have gone very badly indeed, but there is no solid news at present, just myriad unconfirmed reports.
Lib Dem sources denied talks with Labour had broken down this afternoon.
“We believe very strongly that there should be a government with a strong and secure majority in the House of Commons and of course with an elected prime minister, and we remain very, very firmly of that view,” William Hague said as he entered the Cabinet Office for talks with the Lib Dems.
“We set out proposals to achieve that yesterday and we have come here to hear the Liberal Democrat response.”
Several Labour MPs expressed concern about an alliance with Britain’s third party today.
Schools minister Diana Johnson became the first Cabinet-level figure to say she thought a Lib-Lab coalition would be too unstable.
A little later, Andy Burnham, health secretary, became by far the most important Labour figure to speak out against a deal.
“I think we have got to respect the results of the general election and we can’t get away from the fact that Labour didn’t win,” he is reported as saying.
There were positive noises from the Tory backbenches though, with Douglas Carswell telling politics.co.uk: “I think the days of mass brand generic politics are breaking down. There’s an appetite for the niche and the distinctive.
“I think it’s in our interests to form a political interest that allows that.”
The markets are not showing any predicted signs of panic, despite dire warnings about the consequences of a hung parliament from various politicians and media commentators.
But with the public becoming increasingly exasperated with the closed-door talks, party officials will be keen to finalise a deal before the public mood turns against them.
This morning, Nick Clegg said: “I wish I could provide a running commentary on every twist and turn. I don’t think that’s the way to arrive at the best decisions.
“All I can say is bear with us a little bit longer and I hope that we will be able to provide you with a full announcement as soon as is possible.”
Leaving his home this morning, David Cameron said: “My own members of parliament have shown that they are prepared to put aside party interest in the national interest by agreeing a referendum on the alternative vote.
“It’s now, I believe, decision time – decision time for the Liberal Democrats – and I hope they make the right decision to give this country the strong, stable government that it badly needs and it badly needs quickly.”
It was reported that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg met for an hour this morning.
Today’s negotiations provided another frantic and confused day in Westminster, following a tumultuous series of events yesterday.
Brown quits as Labour leader
Gordon Brown’s announcement that he would stand down as Labour leader implicitly mapped out the remaining aspects of the Labour offer to the Lib Dems: a new Labour leader, legislation for the alternative vote (AV), and a subsequent referendum on a more proportional system.
The Conservatives offered the Lib Dems a referendum on AV – a remarkable development given the party’s historic opposition to such a move.
Tories offer Clegg referendum on electoral reform
A Lib-Con pact would also be more stable, having enough parliamentary seats to secure a Commons majority.
A Lib-Lab pact would require other coalition partners or an agreement that they would back central piece of legislation in the Commons while the Lib-Lab coalition forms a minority government.
A meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs late last night failed to produce any firm results, but it seems clear that Nick Clegg is not willing to extend the process much further.
The contest for the Labour leadership would not take place until after negotiations are over, but Harriet Harman already appears to have ruled herself out by saying she would like to remain deputy Labour leader.
Labour prepares for leadership contest
David Miliband, currently foreign secretary, remains the favourite to succeed Mr Brown, but is expected to face a tough challenge from his brother, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband.
Over at Conservative HQ, David Cameron is facing one of the most nail-biting days of his career. With the final Tory offer on the table, he is now forced to sit back and wait until Mr Clegg makes a decision.
If the Tories are cast out into opposition, Mr Cameron can expect plots against him to develop from within the party. Many backbenchers were irritated by the Tory leader’s centrist agenda and aspects of his behaviour towards MPs in the wake of the expenses scandal.
Those feelings had previously been put to one side in the drive to Downing Street, but with all hope of government lost, a concerted campaign against Mr Cameron would become a distinct possibility.