If today is what Westminster life in a Hung Parliament is going to be like then bring it on. Portcullis House is a seething mass of MPs, politicians and aides milling around in knots trying to work out what on earth is going on. Expectations are still of a deal by tonight.
Despite the rumours swirling around, (for example the return of David Davis to the Tory front bench), many Tory MPs are (as of 3.30pm) still claiming they don’t know the exact terms of the offer which is now in outline form. This could of course be an example of iron discipline in the face of the journalistic swarms.
Apparently David Cameron himself (said to be looking rather tired) was keen on formal coalition, possibly for four years to ensure stability. But his willingness to bend to Lib Dem demands for full voting reform is still unclear; which could mean a confidence and supply arrangement.
Lib Dem MPs have meanwhile gone to ground for a lengthy meeting but could be out before 4pm. (Update at 4.15pm: they have emerged, saying the talks were positive but they need more time to consider them. David Laws, one of the negotiators, said his party would go back to the Tories seeking clarification of a number of points – including on voting reform. Laws said his MPs were sending out a ‘very clear message’: if so it’s not clear to the hacks yet.
David Cameron had a 2pm meeting with his shadow cabinet to sound out whether he had their support for a deal. One member of the shadow cabinet tells me that full coalition has been offered (“there’s no point in offering any less if you want a proper mandate to govern”, he says). We could still end up with confidence and supply, however.
In a couple of hours Mr Cameron will face all Tory MPs – half of whom are new to Parliament, which could work in his favour (“they aren’t likely to resist a deal if they’ve only just arrived here”, one Tory MP tells me). Tensions are running high. Not least because this could be Gordon Brown’s last day in 10 Downing Street (rumours have been whipping around about an imminent GB resignation).
The next five years (or six/18 months, depending on when you think the general election will be) are going to be more like this; late night sittings, horsetrading, backstabbing, briefing and counterbriefing and deal after deal. Gary Gibbon at Channel 4 has a good flavour of the madness.
For a while this morning I was impressed that the Lib Dems had managed to keep a secret; the location of their midday talks. Within minutes, however, the hack pack had tracked them down to a room just off Westminster Hall. Political types just can’t help leaking.