The British electorate will go to the polls May 6, and one man has revitalized a race beset by cynicism with the political system. Not Gordon Brown, the prime minister, nor his Conservative rival, David Cameron, but Nick Clegg — leader of the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party. Clegg's superlative performance in the U.K.'s first-ever leaders' debate earlier this month saw him surge in the polls, and prompted critics on both sides of the Atlantic to compare him to Barack Obama. "You can feel it in the air," says Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian. "The fierce urgency of Nick; the audacity of Clegg." Is he really "The British Obama" — and could he be the next prime minister? (Watch the BBC tongue-in-cheekly apologize for its treatment of Nick Clegg)
Who is Nick Clegg?
Early in his career, the Cambridge University-educated leader of the Liberal Democrats flitted between journalism, lobbying, and academia, spending time in the U.S. as an intern at The Nation and as an environmentalist in Minnesota. Now Clegg, 43, heads Britain's third political party, after the incumbent Labor Party and the Conservative Party, hoping to win power in May. More left-wing than America's mainstream parties, the "Lib Dems" want to break up the banks, increase taxes on the rich, and scrap Britain's nuclear arsenal. Conservative critics stereotype their supporters as "bearded, sandal-wearing geography teachers."
Why is everyone talking about Clegg?
Because of his remarkable performance in the U.K.'s first leadership debate, held April 15. Considered a political underdog, Clegg's widely praised performance was a "real game changer," said the Guardian. He successfully branded his rivals as the products of a broken political system, and his own party as the agent of change. Every newspaper and poll in the U.K. named him the outright winner, and his party saw an incredible 14-point rise in voter support. One poll even put the Liberal Democrats ahead of the Labor Party.
Why are people comparing him to Obama?
His debate success was his "Iowa moment," according to one critic, because it changed the tenor of the campaign. More than that, he "represents a change from the status quo," says Nick Rizzo at Gawker. Like Obama, points out Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic, Clegg is the target of vicious attacks from the right-wing media. But many journalists are making the comparison with tongue firmly in cheek. "Obama promised to transcend America's troubled racial past and the culture wars of the 1960s," says Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian. "Clegg promises to make the drivers of night buses let you get off between stops."
Could he win the election?
That's highly unlikely. The Lib Dems won 18 percent of the vote in 2005—to win a majority they'd have to make the biggest electoral surge in British history. But if (as expected) the Liberal Democrats finish a strong third, Clegg could become a "kingmaker." Clegg's success makes it unlikely that one of the main parties will win an outright majority either, so Clegg's decision on which party to form a government with will determine which of his rivals will be prime minister. If Clegg fails to come to an agreement with either party, the Queen will have to call another general election, and the Obama comparisons will begin all over again.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
Subscribe to the Week