Brown's Lib-Dem sweetener

By Andrew Grice

LONDON - A far-reaching package of constitutional reforms, which could form the basis of a deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats if the general election results in a hung parliament, was to be announced by Gordon Brown today.

He was expected to outline his support for fixed-term four-year parliaments, surrendering the Prime Minister's power to choose the date of an election; a "double referendum" on the voting system for Westminster elections; a fully elected House of Lords; and an eventual move to a written constitution.

The new Parliament will start on May 19, almost a week later than usual, which would allow time for negotiations between the parties.

Labour still insists the party can win outright and it stresses that the reforms to be included in its election manifesto are designed to rebuild trust after the MPs' expenses controversy - not to curry favour with the Liberal Democrats.

But opinion polls suggest a hung parliament or a Tory win are more likely than a Labour victory, and Brown's reform package will be seen as a way to woo Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg if the third party holds the balance of power.

An understanding in which the Liberal Democrats supported a minority government in key Commons votes is possible.

Early legislation on fixed-term parliaments would be a sweetener for Clegg, whose party could be squeezed if a second election were held soon after the first.

In the heat of battle, the Liberal Democrats will dismiss Brown's "death-bed conversion" to the constitutional change they have long supported. But Labour ministers believe the Brown package could become important because the Tories oppose most of the reforms.

Although David Cameron is attracted by the idea of fixed-term parliaments, he is not persuaded. He has said an elected second chamber would not be a top priority.

The Tories yesterday blocked the section of a bill proposing a referendum on replacing the first-past-the-post system with a method in which voters rank candidates in order of preference.

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