Published April 29, 2010
OXFORD, England – OXFORD, England (AP) — Fans compare him to Barack Obama. Young people greet him like a rock star. In a measure of his success, some newspapers are now on a mission to drag him down — so far to no avail.
Nick Clegg, the fresh-faced leader of the nation's perennial political also-rans, has rocketed from obscurity to become the man of the moment in the British elections — surging to second in polls and likely holding the balance of power.
Until three weeks ago, the 43-year-old was simply the leader of what has long been Britain's somewhat harmless third-place party. But after the country's first-ever televised political debate, he became a magnet for voter anger and those seeking change.
With a demand that Britain rethink the way it elects its leadership, he may also alter the character of British politics forever. This is his moment — and he seems ready to seize the chance.
"The Liberal Democrats want to give you hope," he told a group of students here Thursday.
While he may lack the soaring rhetoric of the American president, his relaxed but forthright style in the first debate made a particular impression with Britons.
While Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader David Cameron seemed stiff and focused on attacking each other, Clegg looked at the camera and connected with the audience. He appeared to ad-lib everything, standing with his hand in his pocket — more the affable guy-next-door than a former member of the European parliament, a party leader since 2007, and a fixture in the political Establishment.
Britain went Clegg-crazy.
A photomontage of the famous Obama "Hope" poster emerged — with Clegg's image in shades of red and blue. Tall and angular, he's no supermodel. But his suits fit and he's telegenic in a boyish and reassuring kind of way.
Image counting for much in this campaign, it took just two broadcasts — seen by millions — to upend all political expectations and make Clegg a credible alternative to the heavyweights. Words like kingmaker, Cleggstacy and Cleggmania surfaced among the chattering classes.
Britain's newspapers started digging into his background and finances. Newspapers seized upon an Associated Press-distributed picture of him as a teenager standing with other privileged young men on a tennis court — and compared it with a picture of Cameron in tails with members of an exclusive club at Oxford University.
Clegg suddenly mattered. He was a comet that no one had predicted would burn so bright. The only question is whether he will become a political supernova — interesting at first, but soon flaming out.
His opponents started taking apart his policies, painting him as naive for pledging to scrap the replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear submarines. Brown told him he was anti-American, apparently because Clegg has suggested Britain should stop staking so much on its so-called "special relationship" with the United States.
Though recent polls show he might be losing momentum, his privileged upbringing has not antagonized voters in the way Cameron's has. That may be because — for all the publicity that swirls around him — most people still know so little about him.
The son of an investment banker, Clegg is the product of one of Britain's most elite private schools and Cambridge University, where he studied social anthropology. He won notice as an amateur actor. Hollywood superstar Helena Bonham Carter was a schoolmate. His wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, the daughter of a Spanish senator, is a partner in an international law firm.
He spent time in the United States, doing postgraduate work at the University of Minnesota, later working in New York as a trainee journalist with left-wing polemicist Christopher Hitchens. He also studied at the College of Europe in Bruges. He speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish. His father is half-Russian; his mother, Dutch.
But despite that privileged pedigree, he lacks the fruity vowels that helps define the country's aristocracy. Compared to ultra-posh Cameron, Clegg seems average. And compared to the bookish, 59-year-old Brown, he appears positively dynamic.
Clegg's anonymity has been one of his strengths, giving him the ability to play the outsider in a country outraged by scandalous revelations of abuse in the filing of lawmakers' expenses. While some had their moats cleaned with public money, citizens were losing jobs. Voters lost trust in their leaders even as they lost their own homes, businesses and futures in the financial meltdown.
Clegg's party, though tainted like the others, had no moats, and fewer unfathomable expenditures, mostly because there were fewer of them — and because the party never had as high a profile as Labour or the Conservatives.
It all means that voters interested in protest are interested in Clegg.
"Most people wouldn't have recognized him in a photograph six weeks ago," said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds. "He's new."
Typical of the surge in support is Thomas Instone, 28, the assistant manager at an audio store in this university town. He thinks Clegg is the first Liberal Democrat leader with charisma — and broad appeal.
"He seems more human," Instone said. "He's come along at the right time."
Polls in the weeks since the first debate have been volatile, but several have put his party in second place ahead of Brown, who could fall even further after a gaffe in which he called a lifelong Labour supporter a bigot.
Both Brown and Cameron sniped at Clegg in their third and final televised debate, calling him risky and untested. Clegg appealed to voters to ignore them.
"Together, we can change Britain," he said in his closing speech. "Don't let anyone tell you that it can't happen. It can."
Clegg's message appears to have resonated.
"I think it's time for new blood," said Allan Nation, 61, a longtime Labour voter who thinks he'll vote Liberal Democrat this time. "I've had enough of Gordon Brown."
With the race too close to call, and the possibility no one party will win a majority, the uneven distribution of seats means Labour could hold onto Downing Street even if it finishes in third place, a fact Clegg complains could only happen in "the weird, wacky, Alice in Wonderland world of Westminster politics."
But that weird and wacky world could make the support of Clegg and his party crucial, because two parties working together could form a coalition government — and put the Liberal Democrats at the heart of government.
So will Clegg do a deal with Brown? Or Cameron? He's playing coy. Either way, Clegg's main demand is for electoral reform. The point is critical for the Liberal Democrats, who would remain at the table of power indefinitely if a European-style proportional system were instituted in Britain.
The point is also critical for Britain, which moves at a glacial pace in changing anything steeped in tradition. But in this election, he holds the cards — and could force the change. He may not get another chance, Honeyman said.
"If he doesn't grab this opportunity with both hands, it may not come for along for a long time," she said. "It's unique territory. But it is special territory."