Gordon Brown has tendered his resignation to the Queen, bringing to a close 13 years of Labor rule. The Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, is in Buckingham Palace as I write, being commissioned by the Queen to form the next government. As I begin this, there is no prime minister; but by the time I finish, there will be. Downing St is only ever in sede vacante for about an hour.
Four days of fascinating political horsetrading - mostly behind closed doors, but sufficiently in public to hold the nation in thrall -- are over. A deal has been struck between the Conservatives, who won the most seats (306, against Labor's 258) but not enough to form a majority in Parliament -- and the Liberal-Democrats, who came third (57 seats). Precisely what that deal consists of is yet to be made public, but there are suggestions that it includes the Conservatives' abandoning tax breaks on inheritance and marriage and adopting the Lib-Dem proposal to raise the tax threshold to £10,000 a year -- which will benefit the working poor. The deal is also certain to include some kind of commitment to reforming the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system to allow the proportion of the votes cast to be reflected in parliamentary seats. And perhaps most significantly, the UK will in future have US-style fixed parliamentary terms.
It seemed for a while yesterday that the new Government would be a cobbled-together coalition of Labor, Lib-Dems, the Northern Irish SDLP and others. But it would have been weak, unstable and unlikely to secure popular support: the Conservatives, after all, increased their share of the vote while Labor lost huge numbers of seats and the Lib-Dems did much worse than expected. A Lib-Dem/Tory alliance was always going to be stronger than a Lib-Dem/Labor one.
Is it a coalition -- with a number of key ministerial posts going to the Lib-Dems -- or will the Conservatives form a minority government with support from the Lib-Dems? We will know soon.
Brown's resignation speech just now was dignified. He believes he was right on policy but blames himself for failing to communicate properly in what he called a "difficult media environment". Brown, who took over from Blair after he resigned in 2007, was an unelected prime minister. He decided not to call an election in 2008 -- which he very probably would have won -- and shortly after was hit by two political tidal waves: the financial collapse of September that year, and last year's parliamentary expenses scandal. He often seemed inept and overwhelmed, his famous "psychological flaws" -- frustration, a bad temper -- more and more visible as the difficulties mounted. But on the economy and on many other issues, he was very far from being a poor leader.
The next prime minister is just 43, one of the youngest ever. He is a liberal, a reformer, with an informal manner and an ability to speak accessibly and straightforwardly. But he is in other ways a very conventional establishment figure, a product of Eton, an Anglican.
And now he has left Buckingham Palace.
We have a new prime minister. And a new government.