If a week in politics is a long time, what is two weeks?
Although Sir Winston Churchill is undoubtedly Britain’s most quotable Prime Minister, it was Harold Wilson who came up with the most memorable quip. Wilson, who led Labour Party governments as Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976, often said, “A week in politics is a long time.”
Never have Wilson’s word rang truer than in the 2010 British general election campaign. How else can one describe the political fortunes of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party? At this time a week ago, Clegg was barely on the political radar. Last week’s cover of the Economist featured campaign posters of Britain’s three top political leaders — Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Gordon Brown, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Clegg. Scrawled beneath each of the posters were the following captions:
Vote Brown — “The Devil You Know”
Vote Cameron — “The Devil You Don’t”
Vote Clegg — “Who The Devil?”
In fact, in a survey conducted last month more Britons could identify the racehorse Kauto Star than they could Clegg. The Daily Telegraph commented, “The news will come as a blow to Clegg who has spent his party’s Spring Conference attempting to position himself as a major player in the Election battle.”
But with Clegg’s performance last Thursday in Britain’s first ever televised leaders’ debate, not only has Clegg dramatically improved his name recognition but a poll commissioned by the Sunday Times declared him the most popular political leader since Churchill. I guess you could say Clegg had a very good week.
It’s not that Clegg said anything particularly remarkable during the debate. Yet he was able to hold his own with his better known counterparts while setting himself apart as the fellow who came into the room without any political baggage to speak of. The day prior to the debate, Nigel Morgan of Morgan PR made this observation about Clegg’s prospects:
Wait, what about “Who the devil” Nick Clegg? Well there is the interesting thing, no one really knows how Clegg is going to perform. Indeed he has the least to lose and everything to gain. Expectations for Cameron’s performance are so sky high his PR people are trying to play it down, while Brown has to truly impress viewers to confound their low expectations of him. Clegg on the other hand can be seen as an alternative to these two big beasts and may well come across as the voice of reason rather than one of the snarling other two.
Because Clegg accomplished his mission and then some, the election is now Cameron’s to lose. When the Tory leader agreed to include Clegg in the debate in December 2009 it was not well received by Tim Montgomerie, founder and editor of Britain’s most influential conservative blog ConservativeHome. At the time, Montgomerie wrote the debates would be “a big boost for Nick Clegg.” He added, “I hope CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] don’t live to regret this decision.” Montgomerie’s worst fears appear to have been realized. An editorial in the Sunday Times said Cameron’s decision “could turn out to be the biggest political gaffe since Mr. Brown’s failure to call an election three years ago.”
Clegg’s performance in the debate was such that Cameron hastily had to record a new campaign ad. Cameron had originally filmed an ad focused on Brown’s record since assuming the reins at 10 Downing Street. Without mentioning Clegg or his party by name, the Tory leader acknowledged the debate “has really shaken up this election campaign.” Cameron called upon the British electorate to vote in a majority Conservative government. He warned, “Any other result would lead to more indecision and more of the old politics. We might even be stuck with what we’ve got now.”
However, Cameron might need to be far more direct. Eric Pickles, chairman of the Conservative Party, put it far more bluntly than Cameron when he wrote, “Do you want five more years of Gordon Brown? The answer is that if you vote Liberal Democrat or Labour you will. Only by voting Conservative can we be sure of the change we need.”
Meanwhile, Clegg is getting the sort of press to which President Obama is accustomed. Indeed, Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian has described Clegg as “a British version of Obama.” Although that might not be as complimentary as it would appear at first glance. Burkeman writes. “The U.S. likes its heroes to be inspiring underdogs who battle vast forces to realize their dreams. We like ours to be not-particularly-inspiring underdogs who never do quite realize their dreams.” Burkeman then produces a list of examples including Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the British skier who finished dead last in the 70 meter and 90 meter ski jump at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Is Burkeman suggesting Clegg is headed for big fall? Is it all downhill from here?
Well, Clegg has apparently been taking advice from former DNC Chair Howard Dean. The one time Democratic presidential hopeful declined to divulge the nature of his advice. For Clegg’s sake, I hope Dean hasn’t advised him to let out a primal scream during his next debate with Brown and Cameron this Thursday.
The election is set for May 6, a little more than a fortnight away. But if a week in politics is a long time then what is two weeks in politics? Cameron would be wise to shed light on Clegg’s policies as former Thatcher cabinet minister Norman Tebbit has done. Otherwise Cameron’s political career might not have a leg on which to stand. Barring any reckless statements or actions, Nick Clegg appears to have a leg up on both David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Or perhaps a Clegg up.