Historians looking back on the six days following the 2010 general election may conclude that an attempt — only partially successful — was made to mount a very un-British coup. On Thursday May 6, the Conservatives won 306 seats compared to 258 for Labour and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. In Labour's worst debacle since the late Michael Foot's humiliation by Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the party polled two million fewer votes than the Tories and lost nearly 100 seats. Although the Conservatives were denied an overall majority, there could be no doubt that the Labour government had lost decisively. The normal constitutional procedure in such circumstances had hitherto been for the incumbent, once he had satisfied himself of the impossibility of commanding a majority in the Commons, to offer his resignation to the Queen. The monarch would then invite the Leader of the Opposition, in this case David Cameron, to attempt to form either a minority or a coalition government.
Cuckoo in the nest? Nick Clegg flanked by Tory Cabinet members Theresa May, George Osborne, Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith
Yet as the nation waited expectantly for Cameron to be summoned by the Queen to become her 12th Prime Minister, it became clear on Friday May 7 that Gordon Brown was stubbornly refusing to concede defeat. A small band of desperados sought to rewrite the unwritten constitution, overturning the damning verdict of the electorate on the government. Led by Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell — two of the most devious men in British politics — and the diehards of the Left led by Ed Balls, the putschists took over the reins of government, occupying Downing Street and refusing to concede defeat. They planned to cobble together a coalition of the two "progressive" parties who had lost the election, with the aim of excluding the clear victor. Their plot was to rewrite the rules of the electoral system in order to usurp the power that rightfully belonged to the Conservatives. As it emerged that the plotters had been putting out feelers to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, behind the Tories' backs, a wave of revulsion swept the country, including any Labour members with a shred of decency left. It was an affront to democracy. The former Labour Cabinet minister John Reid warned that by trying to concoct a "coalition of the losers", Labour and the Liberals were risking "mutually assured destruction" at the hands of the electorate. David Blunkett indignantly declared that his colleagues were deaf to the message the voters were giving them. None of this could shame the usurpers, who sought to sabotage the most distinctive mechanism of the British system: the inalienable right to throw the rascals out.
To his eternal shame, Brown himself took part in these machinations and thereby put at risk the prestige of his office. Once the scale of his defeat at the ballot box had become clear, at the latest by the morning after polling day, Brown had the opportunity to leave Downing Street with more dignity than he had ever shown during the 13 years that he had lived there, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and latterly as Prime Minister. Instead, Brown waited until the following Monday to announce that he would step down as leader of the Labour Party, though not until a successor could be found. Even then, he clung to the trappings of prime ministerial office, refusing for another 24 hours to make the short journey to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation, in the vain hope that his shadowy junta could conjure a government out of thin air to be the vehicle for a mythical "progressive majority" — itself a figment of the fevered imaginations of Guardian columnists. When Brown finally admitted defeat, on the afternoon of Tuesday May 11, he demanded an audience with the Queen, in order to resign immediately. After one of his abrupt mood swings, he had switched from inordinate delay to indecent haste. Now, however, the Palace apparently rebuffed his request. By this time talks between the Tories, whose team was led by William Hague, and the Liberal Democrats were at a crucial stage and the Queen did not want to take the risk of Britain's first coalition government since 1945 being strangled at birth. Brown, impatient to go, was made to wait a while until it became clear that a deal had been struck between Cameron and Clegg. Meanwhile, he was left alone in his bunker, apart from the plotters who eventually crept out by the back door. According to a Guardian photographer who overheard the Prime Minister taking a phone call from his chief whip Nick Brown at 4pm, Gordon Brown said: "I've got to go to the Palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go. The Queen expects me to go. I can't hold on any longer." Was this said in front of the press for effect? In any event, it was an all-too belated recognition of what had all along been his duty: to submit to the judgment of democracy. However, Clegg was not yet done with Brown: even as the PM prepared to go to the Palace, the Lib Dem leader was still on the phone, trying to extract more concessions from Labour with which to haggle in his talks with Cameron, until an exasperated Brown was heard to say: "Whatever happens, I am going to the Palace."
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