Monday, April 19, 2010

What Nick Clegg Means

I can't claim to have followed the British election campaigns very closely. But it seems clear that this weekend's televised debates changed everything. Going into the debate, the Tories had a big lead in the polls, translating (due to some peculiarities in the Parliamentary system that I don't pretend to understand) into a likely small majority in Parliament (and hence into the formation of a stable Tory government under David Cameron). Labour was next (under Gordon Brown), distantly followed by the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg.

But then Clegg pulled a Ross Perot in the debate, emerging as the clear winner, and now the Lib Dems appear to have pulled into a three-way tie (effectively). The polls are roughly split 30-30-30 with 10% undecided. Will the Clegg effect remain until the election? It's only two weeks away.

During the last Presidential campaign, some Canadian told me that the best and worst thing about the U.S. system was the interminable campaigning. It's certainly grueling, both for the participants and politics-minded observers. But by the time the election comes around, there are few surprises - the candidates have been put through such a wringer that we know them well, or should.

With the foreshortened Parliamentary schedule, can the same be said of Nick Clegg? The Perot bounce after the first debate in 1992 faded and he ended up a distant (but still meaningful) third by the time of the general election. What will happen to Clegg? It's a very important question, particularly in the UK, because if no party wins a majority of seats, it's possible that no government can be formed. Even before the debates, the best the Tories could have hoped was a small majority of seats. If they can't get even this, then an unstable coalition government may be the only possibility. This is bad news for the Tories, since the alliance would probably be between the Lib-Dems and Labour.

However the election comes out, though, the emergence of Clegg probably heralds a leftward swing in the next British government.

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