AS the Tory councillors took their seats in the council chamber on Wednesday, they knew their fate was sealed. There was nothing they could do to change the end result. The only question on their minds was the extent of the Lib Dem sellout.

What price had been paid for their votes?

Talk of a historic coalition began almost a month prior to this week's dramatic events when the Tories published their budget papers on January 25.

The Liberal Democrats made it known they would be open to talks with either party. It's now clear Labour gladly took up the invitation.

Rumours of a coup began circulating the halls of the Civic Centre late last week when the Tories, sensing a deal may have been struck, were stonewalled in their last-minute attempt to make budget concessions to the Lib Dems.

The final details of the budget pact were thrashed out between Labour and Lib Dem chiefs over a lengthy meeting on Monday afternoon.

The deal was then agreed by group members that night.

The following day the parties agreed to a fivepage "convention" - some of which we have reproduced to the right - as to how they will govern the city together.

The Tories were invited to join the partnership on Wednesday morning, just hours before the budget meeting. But they declined to give up their principles.

Unaware of the deal hatched behind closed doors, more than 60 residents packed the public gallery three days ago to watch the budget show unfold in the chamber below.

Tensions flared within minutes of the start of the annual meeting when Labour mayor Stephen Barnes- Andrews asked whether councillors wanted to hear deputations from the public.

Tory council leader Alec Samuels rose to his feet to call it a waste of time, as each group had already set out their spending plans.

"Is it really right that we should all spend more time listening to select lobby groups putting their viewpoints?" he asked.

Yes, came the reply when councillors' votes were counted, this is a public meeting.

The first public sign something had been hatched was the withdrawal of a deputation by Unison, the union which represents almost onethird of council workers, who had just minutes earlier gathered on the steps of the Civic Centre to warn councillors against job and service cuts.

Labour councillors had joined them for photos.

Yet Tory councillors were forced to sit and listen to pleas from arts organisations not to cut their funding.

As the meeting began, the mayor set out the debating rules, warning councillors not to stoop to "personal attacks" and reminding them it was their "duty" to set a budget.

So began the formalities of each of the minority groups - Conservatives (18 seats), Labour (18 seats), Lib Dems (ten seats, with Councillor Ceren Davis earlier declared absent due to an accident) - putting forth their budget proposals only to see them all voted down one by one.

Councillor Jeremy Moulton, Tory Cabinet member for finance, betrayed no signs he knew he was about to lose his job as he opened the debate with a confident 25-minute speech detailing the merits of the Conservative budget. "The best budget in a generation," he claimed.

With roars of support from his benches he then turned to pick apart the opposition amendments, reminding the chamber of Labour's 18 per cent council tax rise of 2003 - the last time they were in office.

And he forecast "a living hell" for residents if the Lib Dems were allowed to bring in their cherished alternate weekly bin collections.

Then he gave away defeat was on the cards with his closing line: "Whatever is decided today, in just over two months the electorate will have their say."

So impressed by their man, only Councillor John Hannides, Cabinet member for leisure and culture, had anything to add.

After nine months in office, following the 13 years he had spent warming the opposition benches, Cllr Hannides was not going to let the history of the occasion escape mention.

He said: "This is the first budget in a generation that has shown real leadership and vision."

Labour group leader June Bridle hit back, saying the Tory budget contained more cuts than she had seen for many years, and forecast "appalling damage to a whole raft of services".

And when it came to his turn, Lib Dem leader Adrian Vinson compared the Tory budget to the "slash and burn" of Viking times.

It was left to independent councillor Norah Goss, who had last year rebelled from the Lib Dems to put the Tories in power, to let the cat out of the bag. "Why are we going through this charade? she asked. "The marriage has already taken place."

So, after almost two hours Cllr Bridle, her thunder stolen, revealed her budget pact with the Lib Dems, declaring a new "spirit of cooperation".

Papers for the joint budget, piled high in brown envelopes under the guard of the council's sergeants-at-arms, were circulated.

Eyes were then on the Labour and Lib Dem benches for any wavering hands as the vote was called. They all faithfully responded.

"The silence from the Tory benches is a little deafening," Cllr Vinson jeered.

Wounded Cllr Samuels took his feet to respond as screams were heard from outside the council chamber (some kids running amok, but the timing was prophetic).

"I'm not sure I have to do anything under the law," Cllr Samuels, a lawyer, said, knowing he was minutes away from being beheaded.

Declaring herself "staggered" he had not done the "honourable thing" and resigned, Cllr Bridle successfully moved to remove Cllr Samuels as leader with the backing of the Lib Dems.

Councillors then gave themselves a break before returning to appoint a new leader. Labour deputy Councillor Jacqui Rayment, backed by Cllr Vinson, proposed Cllr Bridle. Tory deputy Councillor Royston Smith put forward Cllr Samuels, knowing the maths made it pointless.

The votes again went against the Tories, who received the backing of Cllr Goss. However, this time Lib Dem councillor John Slade, who had earlier appeared reluctant to support the joint budget with a half-raised hand, had failed to return to the chamber.

He later denied any dissent at the new alliance, explaining he had been late because he was moving his car.

The power switch completed, Cllr Bridle only had to make a prepared announcement of her new Cabinet. Lib Dems got four of the nine £10,000 posts.

She told the chamber the historic deal was backed by a "convention" signed by both group leaders that she said would allow the parties to retain independence while working together.

The electorate would recognise the seriousness of the move, she said. "We are not treating it as a joke." Voters will decide in May.