When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the 2010 election, the talk was all about Labour and Tory — the traditional parties that have long dominated the political order in Britain. The Liberal Democrats under relative newcomer Nick Clegg were often mentioned in references that began, "Also running is …."
No more. Britain's first-ever televised leaders debate on April 15 changed everything.
Clegg's confident performance was such a game-changer that some polls subsequently showed the Lib Dems actually leading the old-order parties — something that hasn't happened in a generation. A headline in the Times even compared him to Winston Churchill. The dark horse had clearly started his charge.
So who is Nick Clegg, and how has he managed — at least so far — to charm the British electorate?
For one thing, he's not one of the "old boys" — either in attitude or age. He's a 43-year-old father of three. He speaks five languages. He freely comments on issues most senior politicians avoid, like religion (he doesn't believe in God but has "enormous respect" for those who do) and sex (he admitted to sleeping with "no more than 30" women before meeting his Spanish-born wife).
He has famous friends, like film director Sam Mendes, and he once acted in a college play opposite Helena Bonham Carter.
It doesn't hurt that he looks good and comes across on TV as likeable. "Poised," "assured," "relaxed," and "eloquent" are frequent descriptions in press accounts.
It may be even more important, however, that he's not part of the old-guard, two-party establishment of which British voters appear to be increasingly weary. Clegg has relied on that outsider image to score points with an angry and disaffected public.
Still, his early life had some of the hallmarks of privilege. Clegg's father was a banker. The young Clegg attended an elite private school in London, and after graduation, he took a year off to work as a ski instructor in Austria before going on to study social anthropology at Cambridge University. He did postgraduate work at the University of Minnesota and at the College of Europe in Belgium, where he met his future wife.
Clegg dabbled in journalism for a time — working in New York as an intern for Christopher Hitchens at the left-wing magazine, The Nation.
It was a subsequent five-year stint working at the European Commission that helped to forge his credentials as a passionate defender of social justice and civil liberties and as a shrewd observer of how politics really works. He wrote speeches, worked on aid programs in poor areas of central Asia and acted as a trade negotiator with China and Russia.
While Clegg was at the EC, a British power-broker at the commission tried to persuade him to join the Conservative Party and consider running for the European parliament. Instead, he chose the Liberal Democrats and in 1999, was elected a Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
Travel 'difficult' on family life
In Brussels, he campaigned to reform the European Parliament's shady expense practices and worked on a number of "green" initiatives.
He left in 2004, writing on his official website that the travel involved in being an MEP was "difficult to reconcile with a young family."
The lure of Westminster soon proved impossible to resist. In the 2005 election, he ran for the British parliament as the Liberal Democrat candidate in a well-to-do Yorkshire riding. He won by more than 8,000 votes.
Such was his reputation that when the then-Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy quit just eight months later, Clegg was seriously mentioned as a possible replacement. He chose not to run for the leadership then and was soon appointed to the Lib Dems shadow cabinet. It was in this role that he fought against what he viewed as excessively tough and restrictive anti-terrorism measures.
In late 2007, the Lib Dems leadership came open again, and this time Clegg opted to go for it. He won.
Since then, he has had to reinvent his party's spending plans in light of the economic downturn and is now proposing major spending cuts in some areas while pledging to protect front-line services. He wants to bring in a "mansions tax" that would hit anyone owning a home worth more than £2 million. He promises to clean up British politics — a reference to a widespread expense scandal last year that revealed that several MPs had used a loophole to take public money to renovate their second homes.
Seeks electoral reform
He's also pressing for reform of the British electoral system, where "first-past-the-post" means — as in Canada — that a party can win a much bigger share of the popular vote than it ends up winning in seats.
Depending on what happens on election day — May 6 — Clegg may get a chance to see such reform enacted. While publicly campaigning for a majority, political pundits say Clegg's Liberal Democrats are more likely to be a strong minority party once all the votes are counted. Electoral reform is likely to be a key demand of Clegg's should he end up with the balance of power. A coalition or alliance with Labour could then be in the offing.
It remains to be seen if Clegg's campaign performance will be enough to end the two-party order in Britain. He's acknowledged that poll leads can vanish as quickly as they appear.
At a time when the Labour and Tory leaders have failed to generate much excitement, however, Clegg speaks of "re-engaging people with politics."
So far, at least, people seem to be listening.