Britain’s frequently marginalized third party, the Liberal Democrats, celebrated Friday after its youthful leader Nick Clegg was judged to have scored a stunning victory over his Labour and Conservative counterparts in the UK’s first-ever US-style televised candidates’ debate.
Prime minster Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron both turned in solid performances by playing to their strengths over 90 minutes of Thursday night prime-time television, with the prime minister relying successfully on his experience and the nimble-footed opposition leader Cameron avoiding any banana-skins that could upset his party’s relatively narrow campaign lead.
But in a surprise, polls and commentators awarded victory to the Liberal Democrat, Mr. Clegg, giving his party a potentially transformative boost in its push to break the stranglehold that Labour and the Tories have traditionally enjoyed in UK politics. Britain is apparently still heading for a "hung parliament" on May 6 if no party wins an outright majority.
“There are real opportunities for the Liberal Democrats now,” says Professor Andrew Russell of the University of Manchester, an expert on the Liberal Democrats’ role in British politics.
“The mere presence of Clegg last night has reminded people that there is a viable and legitimate choice from the other two main parties, and he seems to have done very well in the ratings largely by saying to the other two: ‘a plague on both your houses,’ ” says Russell.
Britain, meet Mr. Clegg
Thursday’s debate, watched by almost 10 million Britons, was effectively the nation’s first real introduction to Clegg, a former journalist and European Commission official who speaks five languages. Although derided by some critics as a "Cameron clone," he has been credited with steering his party out of some disarray after becoming leader in 2007.
In a made-for-TV event that was fast-paced but largely free from memorable moments of the sort that have peppered the much longer history of such set-piece events in American politics, Clegg was judged to have produced one of the better ones.
"Have you noticed that the more they attack each other, the more they sound like one another?” he asked the studio audience and the country, as Brown and Cameron became tangled up yet again exchanging jibes.
Looking straight into the camera to deliver some of his best lines, he also most often identified with viewers as a relative outsider, contrasting himself with "them" – the two leaders of the larger parties standing at lecterns to his left.
Britons were asked "Who won?" in four snap polls taken after the debate. Clegg was the victor in each poll with 43, 51, 58, and 37 percent respectively. Cameron and Brown came in roughly tied as the runners-up.
“I think he (Clegg) had a good debate,” Cameron told the BBC Friday. “But I must say I just enjoyed being able to talk to people at home, to address the questions that I think are the big questions at this election like immigration and the economy and crime.”
Brown, who had been prepped in advance by Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who worked on the Obama presidential campaign and specializes in “loosening up” politicians who lack charisma, meanwhile defied his dour image by making the audience laugh on a number of occasions.
He was continually on the offensive against his Tory rival, aggressively insisting: “It’s answer time, Mr. Cameron.” Results from focus groups suggested Brown scored best when attacking Conservative plans to cut back state spending sooner than the Labour government proposes to, but the reaction was often quite muted, indicating that voters are still not warming to him.
However, one line that was often on the lips of the Tory and Labour leaders was that of: “I agree with Nick.”
With the campaign now heading into its final stretch, observers expect that both of the larger parties will increasingly seek to identify common ground between their positions and that of the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Following Thursday night’s stand-off, which was devoted to domestic affairs, the next two debates will deal with foreign affairs and the economy.