Gordon Brown stepping down

In a surprise move to try to keep the Conservatives out of power, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday that he would step down within the next few months and that his Labor Party would immediately begin formal talks with the Liberal Democrats about a possible alliance in government.

It was a startling announcement from a dogged, moody leader who waited 10 years in Tony Blair’s shadow to come to power, and who clung on through months of dismal approval ratings before being rejected at the polls Thursday.

Although the early focus has been on a potential power-sharing arrangement between Conservatives, who won the most seats in Parliament last week, and the upstart Liberal Democrats, a pact with Labor has become more real with the decision by Brown, who had been the main obstacle to a new centrist-liberal power-sharing deal.

The Liberal Democrats finished third in the election but hold the balance of power since neither of the two big parties was able to secure a majority in the House of Commons, producing a so-called hung Parliament. Liberal Democrat leaders said Monday that they would continue negotiating with the Tories but also open talks with Labor as the country went a fourth day without a new government.

Brown clearly sought to tip the balance with his announcement, which came at a hastily called news conference outside the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing St.

In a dramatic bid to extend Labor’s 13 years in power, even in more limited form, Brown said he would seek a “progressive coalition government” with the Liberal Democrats, over which he would preside only temporarily. Together, Labor and the Liberal Democrats acquired more than 50% of the vote last week.

“I have no desire to stay in my position longer than is needed to ensure the path to economic growth is assured and the process of political reform we have agreed moves forward quickly,” Brown said, referring to a demand by the Liberal Democrats for changes to Britain’s voting system.

He acknowledged that Labor’s distant second-place showing in the election was “a judgment on me,” and promised to resign as party leader — and therefore as prime minister if a “Lib-Lab” coalition materializes — by the time of Labor’s annual conference in the fall. The party would then select a new leader, who would succeed Brown as prime minister.

Brown’s offer to resign was also a tacit admission that he was the chief impediment to a deal between Labor and the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, exhorted voters to dump Brown. For Clegg to enter into an alliance with Labor only to prop up such an unpopular prime minister would risk tarnishing his reputation in the eyes of supporters and anger other voters.

A handful of Labor backbench members of Parliament have also called on Brown to step down. After consulting with senior party figures, political advisors and members of his Cabinet, the 59-year-old Scotsman evidently felt his position to be increasingly untenable.

Possible successors include David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and Ed Balls, the education secretary and a Brown confidant.

Brown’s willingness to bow out is no guarantee that an agreement with the Liberal Democrats will come to fruition. Clegg is still in discussions with the Conservatives under David Cameron, the man who many Britons think deserves to be the next prime minister because his party came in first in the election.

But signs that an agreement was still elusive came when Clegg briefed parliamentary members of his party Monday afternoon. The meeting dragged on longer than observers expected, suggesting that the rank and file — which would have to approve any decision to band together with another party — had reservations.

Within an hour of the end of that meeting, Brown made his announcement, saying that Clegg had asked to open formal talks with Labor alongside continuing discussions with the Tories.

Many Liberal Democrats harbor a visceral dislike of the Conservatives, whose right-wing policies they generally distrust. Also, many Tories reject any change to Britain’s electoral system, whose overhaul — to make representation in Parliament more reflective of the popular vote — is a key Liberal Democrat demand.

Immediately after the election, Brown began courting the Liberal Democrats by pledging to hold a referendum on voting reform. He reiterated the importance of that in his remarks Monday.

Caught on the back foot, the Tories quickly tried to sweeten their offer to the Liberal Democrats by matching Brown’s voting reform promise Monday evening.

William Hague, a Tory negotiator, said that it was “urgent” for the Liberal Democrats now to make up their minds. Another Tory negotiator said it was his party’s “final offer.”

In many ways, Labor and the Liberal Democrats, both left-leaning parties, are more congenial partners than the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, who are widely divided.

But a Lib-Lab alliance would immediately face difficulties of its own, both with the general public, which could question the legitimacy of a “coalition of losers,” and in Parliament, where the two parties’ combined seats still fall short of a majority, forcing them to work with tiny parties that have a handful of representatives.

Analysts say such an arrangement might last only a few months before a new election would have to be called. (The same could be true of an unstable Conservative-Liberal Democrat pairing.)

How the financial markets would react is another potential pitfall; investors are likely to be skeptical of whether a left-leaning government would make deep cuts in public spending to bring down Britain’s ballooning budget deficit. Brown tried to reassure the markets Monday by saying that both Labor and the Liberal Democrats regarded deficit-reduction as a priority.

For Brown, the decision to tender his resignation was no doubt a bitter end to a career marked as much by frustration as triumph.

Brown was a rising star in the Labor Party, but another young hotshot, Blair, had the charisma he lacked. When the party leadership opened up in 1994, the two men reputedly agreed over dinner that Blair would have his turn at the reins first.

Blair won power in Labor’s 1997 electoral landslide. As chancellor of the exchequer, Brown was a powerful and increasingly angry No. 2, chafing at his chance to take over the top job.

But when he finally achieved his goal in 2007, when Blair stepped down, Brown’s premiership was beset by government missteps, growing exhaustion with Labor, a scandal over parliamentary expenses and, finally, a tanking economy. He went into the election campaign as the underdog, and came out that way, too.

With his support ebbing by the hour, observers began comparing Brown’s tenure as prime minister to Shakespearean tragedy.

Brown “was Macbeth, seemingly playing out his final act,” Jonathan Freedland, a commentator for the Guardian newspaper, wrote. “Like the embattled Scottish king holed up in his castle, watching Birnam Wood march on Dunsinane, Brown sat in No. 10 knowing that, a few yards away, enemy forces were gathered, preparing to combine and seize his crown.”

On Monday, he surrendered it.