Can You Hear Me Now?

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

Dark-horse candidate Nick Clegg is poised to upend the U.K's two-party system.

It was an offer that many ambitious young Brits would have pounced on. As a bright and energetic Cambridge graduate in the 1990s, Nick Clegg had caught the eye of his boss Leon Brittan, a former Tory cabinet minister working at the European Union in Brussels. Brittan thought his protege had a future in Conservative Party politics, and offered to launch his career back in London. But Clegg had other ideas: he signed up instead with the Liberal Democrats, the perennial losers of British politics.

Crazy as it seems, the decision paid off. Barely 10 years later, the party, now led by Clegg, is set to win real influence for the first time in Britain's postwar history in this May's parliamentary elections. A virtual unknown only two weeks ago, Clegg scored a massive upset victory in Britain's first-ever televised debate against the two main parties' leaders, Labour's incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron. Since then, the Liberal Democrats have leapfrogged Labour to take second place in the polls. At times they've topped the 30 percent mark to run neck and neck with the Conservatives. Media handicappers have begun warning that the "Clegg effect" might change British politics forever.

For the country's longstanding political duopoly, the implications are seismic: Clegg is now regarded as a probable kingmaker, if not more than that. Even if the surge weakens before polling day--a second TV debate last week resulted in a draw--a showing for the Liberal Democrats just slightly better than usual would be enough to place the party squarely at the balance of power between Labour and the Conservatives, with neither party commanding an absolute majority in Parliament. And finding little appeal in the two main parties, many voters seem ready to make a switch.

Hardly anyone saw this coming, least of all the Tories. "Look at their posters," says Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrats' leader in Parliament's upper house. "They thought that all they had to do was to remind people that Gordon Brown was prime minister and that this was their opportunity to get rid of him." The Liberal Democrats have traditionally been a left-leaning (but never socialist) party for the serious-minded--principled but stodgy. Since the 1920s it has been relegated to a minority role in Parliament by Britain's "first past the post" balloting system, which gives the win to whichever candidate gets the largest share of the vote, thus avoiding the runoff contests that might favor a third party. Votes are often cast for the Liberal Democrat candidate merely as a "none of the above" gesture of protest. In the last elections, in 2005, the party won only 63 parliamentary seats, less than 10 percent of the total.

But oddly enough, Clegg's success has been achieved without a distinctive, easily sold vision. His party's platform is a ragbag of policies, as hazy as that of today's Tories under Cameron. On the Lib Dem agenda: a 1 percent "mansion tax" on properties valued at more than [pounds sterling]2 million ($3 million); generalized support for green initiatives; a breakup of the big banks; and tax relief for low-income workers. In the past the party's survival has often depended on single, hot-button issues. Opposition to the Iraq War boosted the party's performance in 2005, and in the past year or so it has benefited from the popularity of Clegg's deputy, Vince Cable, a genial economist who takes credit for publicly warning of the financial crisis long before it struck.

Clegg, like the Tories, isn't straying far from the center ground, where British elections are usually decided. …