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Nick Clegg throws a wrench in Britain’s prime minister race

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He is an avowed atheist who famously claimed to have slept with “no more than 30" women. He has criticized British governments for their “slavish” relationship with Washington.

And he may be the most popular politician in the country.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the perennial also-ran Liberal Democrats, is suddenly being compared by the more breathless British media to President Obama and Winston Churchill. Millions of voters will be watching as he takes the stage Thursday night for the last of three televised debates between the men hoping to emerge as Britain’s prime minister after elections May 6.

Clegg, 43, has upended the usual narrative of such elections here by turning a traditional two-horse race between the Labor and Conservative parties into an unpredictable and potentially historic three-way heat. Running on a platform of targeted spending cuts, a tax on big banks and clean government, Clegg’s left-of-center party is poised for its best-ever showing in a general election.

Credit for that goes almost entirely to the Cambridge-educated Clegg -- and the power of television.

Until the first debate two weeks ago by Clegg, David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, British voters had never seen their prospective leaders spar on national television during an election campaign. As standard-bearers of the two major parties, Brown and Cameron were guaranteed extensive media coverage. But the first live face-off offered Clegg a national platform he never would have had otherwise.

He stole the show.

Handsome and articulate, Clegg argued cogently on everything from education to Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He successfully presented himself as an outsider to an electorate tired of politics as usual -- so much so that Brown and Cameron seemed desperate to catch some of his pixie dust, and Brown’s eager declaration at one point of “I agree with Nick” became the debate’s enduring sound bite.

The pundits, and the snap polls, declared Clegg the runaway winner. His party shot up in popularity. “Britain’s first televised leaders’ debate has irrevocably altered both the terms and the style of British politics,” commentator Laurie Penny wrote in New Statesman magazine, congratulating Clegg on “trouncing his opponents in the tradition of our most dazzling Enlightenment speakers.”

The Liberal Democrats now rank second and even first in some polls. But owing to how Britain’s electoral system works, that’s still probably not enough to land them a majority or even a plurality of seats in the House of Commons. The bets are now on a “hung parliament,” with no party in the majority, a state of affairs this country hasn’t seen since the 1970s. In that case, Clegg could play kingmaker.

He refuses to say which party he would back, Labor or Conservative. In one bizarre scenario, Labor could come in third in the popular vote nationwide, yet still win the largest number of seats in Parliament.

“It’s just preposterous the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in No. 10 [Downing Street] and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister,” Clegg told the BBC. Before his spectacular surge in the polls, Clegg was a cipher to a large number of Britons. For many, he was best known (and mercilessly baited) for a magazine interview he gave two years ago, shortly after becoming party leader, in which he talked about his sexual conquests and described himself as neither “particularly brilliant or particularly bad” in bed. Now the media speak admiringly of his beautiful Spanish-born wife, lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, and their three young sons. Unlike the other candidates’ spouses, Clegg’s wife has declined to join him on the campaign trail as he trundles around the country in the Liberal Democrats’ bus.

Clegg is unusual in other ways for a British politician so close to climbing to the “top of the greasy pole,” as Benjamin Disraeli famously put it.

The son of a half-Russian father and Dutch mother, he speaks several languages. He embraces Britain as a part of Europe and has even expressed support for adopting the euro common currency, a no-go area for many of his compatriots. And in a statement that would be unthinkable in U.S. politics, Clegg reiterated his atheism in last week’s debate, saying, “I’m not a man of faith.”

In a country still segmented by class, he tries to keep quiet the fact that his background, including an education at an exclusive boarding school and Cambridge, is just as “posh” as Cameron’s.

And despite criticizing both Labor and Conservative governments for their obsequious cultivation of the “special relationship” between London and Washington, Clegg speaks enthusiastically about the time he spent as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. In a recent questionnaire, he even described his ideal place to live as “by a lake, somewhere in northwest America,” while Brown and Cameron dutifully chose Scotland and England, respectively. Clegg’s party has benefited from its stance against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Liberal Democrats have also come off the least badly of the three main parties in a scandal over the abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament. But now that Clegg’s star is on the rise, Britain’s tabloid wolfhounds have begun braying.

A statement he allegedly made about British “delusions of grandeur” over having helped defeat the Nazis was an “astonishing attack on our national pride,” the chauvinistic Daily Mail wrote.

The Sun published some debate-prep notes left in a taxi by one of Clegg’s aides, who advised his boss to follow Cameron’s example of talking “in the language of values” and to characterize Brown as “weird.”

The final debate will focus on the economy, which voters have identified as the most important issue facing the nation. Many of the viewers will tune in to watch the man whose candidacy has made this the most unpredictable race in years. “The country is unaccustomed to elections like this,” columnist Philip Stephens declared in the Financial Times. “No one knows what is going to happen next.”

henry.chu@latimes.com


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