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Britain Votes

Nick Clegg's rise to political stardom

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SINKING SHIP: British prime minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party is on third place behind the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

Cleggmania has spread across Britain with astonishing speed.In a matter of days, the Liberal Democrat leader has been catapulted from the obscurity of third-party politics to the top of the ratings as the most popular British leader since Churchill.His party seems set to play a pivotal role in the making of a new government after next week's general election

As Nick Clegg sped across the lush green landscape west of London by train on Tuesday, he spent much of his time disputing suggestions that with the May 6 election just days away, he is well on his way to causing the biggest upset in Britain's recent history. Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, perennial also-rans in the three-party contest that has dominated British politics for decades, has been buoyed by polls suggesting that last week's first-ever televised debate between candidates for prime minister lifted his party into close contention with Labour and the Conservatives.

The election was already considered too close to call when it seemed likely to be a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. Now, with some surveys showing the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck and Labour trailing by a few points, political commentators are starting to say that the televised debate had the effect of a political volcano, remoulding the electoral landscape.

OVERNIGHT SUCCESS


Clegg, a trim, tall, multilingual 43-year-old in a welltailored suit, is nothing if not cool, the quality that appears to have transmitted itself to the television audience. True to form, he insisted, as he travelled to one of the constituencies in the west of England that have long been sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats, that he was not going to allow the polls to turn his head. When asked what he thought of comparisons to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Clegg laughed. He said that any grand analogies with Obama, with former prime minister Tony Blair in Labour's landslide election victory in 1997 or with Winston Churchill, to cite three comparisons made by British newspapers at the weekend — were "daft".
"Some of these claims are absurd, " he said. "I have my flaws and failings, but I'm sufficiently in touch with reality to know that what goes up can come down. The further people push you up, the further you have to fall. That's the law of gravity. "
Polls have been notoriously out of whack in at least one British election in the last 20 years, when John Major's Conservatives came from behind in 1992 to beat Labour, but the movement to Clegg and the Liberal Democrats has been sharp and, in the case of Labour, which finished in third place in The Guardian/ICM poll for the first time, historic.

HYPNOTISING VOTERS


Clegg appears to be riding a maelstrom of voter disgust with the established parties, similar to the anti-Washington passions that have driven American presidential politics for a generation. Last year's scandal over expenses of members of Parliament remains a gaping wound, and some experts wonder whether voter turnout this time will match the last election in 2005, when there was a decades-low turnout of little more than 60 per cent. Clegg, though, is betting one element of Obama's winning formula — the re-engagement of millions of young people — could be at work here.
"A lot of people are tired of the rhythms of the old politics, " he said. "What I'm committed to try and change is the clapped-out, two-party system. People are tired of being bamboozled into making a choice between the red and the blue teams, and they want to make up their own minds. "
Few give Clegg much chance of putting himself in the prime minister's seat. The Liberal Democrats' poll numbers tend to obscure the challenges in winning the large number of seats that it would require. Even 100 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, up from the 62 they won in 2005, would be seen as a major breakthrough.

FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE


But Clegg's surge has energised the battle between prime minister Gordon Brown of Labour and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, who spent much of the TV debate facing off acrimoniously while Clegg concentrated on addressing the TV audience. Since then, the two other leaders have said votes for the Liberal Democrats will serve only to achieve what the voters seem intent on avoiding: "five more years of Gordon Brown" (Cameron's pitch) or a return to the old elitism of the Conservatives (Brown's ).
That has left Clegg to plough his own furrow, avoiding any hint of which party, Labour or Conservative, he would back in the case of a hung Parliament emerging from the election, as many political commentators predict. Brown, often dour in his public appearances, has seemed positively cheerful since the debate, perhaps judging, like many pundits, that Clegg is more of a threat to Cameron.

That is because Clegg shows signs of having inherited the mantle of the fresh-faced challenger that Cameron enjoyed for so long in the bid to unseat Labour. Like Cameron, he is from a wealthy family, educated at an expensive private school and at Cambridge. It is a background every bit as exclusive as Cameron's, though Clegg has so far avoided being tagged by Labour as "posh", as they have done with Cameron.

Clegg spoke enthusiastically in the interview of his American experiences, including a coast-to-coast drive in the year when he was a postgraduate student at the University of Minnesota. He also worked as an aide to a senior official in the European Commission in Brussels, where he met his Spanish-born wife, Miriam González Durántez, an international lawyer who has earned plaudits in the British press by breaking with tradition and saying she has little time to campaign with her husband.

KEEPING HIS OPTIONS OPEN


The challenge now, if Clegg is to maintain his surge, is for him to defend Liberal Democratic policies that Labour and the Conservatives have denounced as soft-headed but which, they say, were largely ignored as long as the party was stuck for decades with the support of barely a fifth of the electorate.

Clegg's opponents have vowed to focus sharply on these policies, one of which is to scrap the $30 billion replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear missile submarines, something Labour and the Conservatives say would strip Britain of a key element of its defence. "No! No!" Clegg said. He said the party favoured looking at cheaper alternatives to the Trident missile system, including air- or sea-launched cruise missiles, and at ways of combating the threat of terrorists obtaining "dirty" bombs, not in eliminating Britain's nuclear force altogether. "All I'm saying is that the world is changing, " he said.

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