Nick Clegg confirmed yesterday that he begged Gordon Brown to stay in Downing Street a little longer while he sewed up a coalition deal with David Cameron.
Asked about the incident, Mr Clegg at first replied that his memory was "a bit blurred" – then blamed Mr Brown for springing the resignation on him "very abruptly" and "out of the blue".
Aides who assembled in Downing Street to say farewell on Mr Brown's last day listened in astonishment as he had a series of telephone calls with Mr Clegg, who kept trying to get him to delay the decision to quit. Eventually, an exasperated Mr Brown told him: "Nick, Nick, I can't hold on any longer. I've got to go to the Palace. The country expects me to do that. I can't hold on any longer. Whatever happens, I'm going to the Palace."
Mr Clegg told the BBC yesterday: "Creating a coalition in a political culture such as ours, which isn't used to coalition, is very unusual. We were doing it in an extraordinarily compressed timetable.
"In most other countries where they negotiate coalitions, they take months to do it. We were doing it in a matter of hours and days when everyone was pretty tired after the election campaign. So suddenly to be told out of the blue the Prime Minister was going to march off and say, 'I'm fed up with this. I'm going to throw the towel in and march off into the distant horizon' – I thought was not the right way of going about things."
He added: "Gordon Brown just very abruptly, suddenly said: 'I'm off, I'm off, I'm off'."
The suggestion that Mr Brown resigned "out of the blue" contrasts with what Mr Clegg said during the election campaign, when he insisted that if there was a hung parliament, he would seek an agreement with whichever party had the most votes and most MPs. He added scathingly: "It would be preposterous for Gordon Brown to end up like some squatter in No 10."
Mr Clegg's admission will reinforce suspicions in Labour circles that he was using them to wring as many concessions as he could out of Mr Cameron. Andrew Adonis, who was part of Labour's negotiating team in the talks that preceded the creation of a coalition Government, has since alleged that the Liberal Democrats were not seriously negotiating with Labour, but were only pretending to, to give them leverage in their talks with the Conservatives. But Mr Clegg said it was impossible to deal with Labour after two former home secretaries, David Blunkett and John Reid, had publicly called on Mr Brown to resign.
"You can't negotiate with an internally divided party – particularly not with a party which wouldn't have carried the legitimacy of the election with it into government," he said.