It was an offer that many ambitious young Brits would have pounced on. As a bright and energetic Cambridge graduate in the 1990s, Nick Clegg had caught the eye of his boss Leon Brittan, a former Tory cabinet minister working at the European Union in Brussels. Brittan thought his protégé had a future in Conservative Party politics, and offered to launch his career back in London. But Clegg had other ideas: he signed up instead with the Liberal Democrats, the perennial losers of British politics.
Crazy as it seems, the decision paid off. Barely 10 years later, the party, now led by Clegg, is set to win real influence for the first time in Britain's postwar history in this May's parliamentary elections. A virtual unknown only two weeks ago, Clegg scored a massive upset victory in Britain's first-ever televised debate against the two main parties' leaders, Labour's incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron. Since then, the Liberal Democrats have leapfrogged Labour to take second place in the polls. At times they've topped the 30 percent mark to run neck and neck with the Conservatives. Media handicappers have begun warning that the "Clegg effect" might change British politics forever.
For the country's longstanding political duopoly, the implications are seismic: Clegg is now regarded as a probable kingmaker, if not more than that. Even if the surge weakens before polling day—a second TV debate last week resulted in a draw—a showing for the Liberal Democrats just slightly better than usual would be enough to place the party squarely at the balance of power between Labour and the Conservatives, with neither party commanding an absolute majority in Parliament. And finding little appeal in the two main parties, many voters seem ready to make a switch.
Hardly anyone saw this coming, least of all the Tories. "Look at their posters," says Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrats' leader in Parliament's upper house. "They thought that all they had to do was to remind people that Gordon Brown was prime minister and that this was their opportunity to get rid of him." The Liberal Democrats have traditionally been a left-leaning (but never socialist) party for the serious-minded—principled but stodgy. Since the 1920s it has been relegated to a minority role in Parliament by Britain's "first past the post" balloting system, which gives the win to whichever candidate gets the largest share of the vote, thus avoiding the runoff contests that might favor a third party. Votes are often cast for the Liberal Democrat candidate merely as a "none of the above" gesture of protest. In the last elections, in 2005, the party won only 63 parliamentary seats, less than 10 percent of the total.
But oddly enough, Clegg's success has been achieved without a distinctive, easily sold vision. His party's platform is a ragbag of policies, as hazy as that of today's Tories under Cameron. On the Lib Dem agenda: a 1 percent "mansion tax" on properties valued at more than £2 million ($3 million); generalized support for green initiatives; a breakup of the big banks; and tax relief for low-income workers. In the past the party's survival has often depended on single, hot-button issues. Opposition to the Iraq War boosted the party's performance in 2005, and in the past year or so it has benefited from the popularity of Clegg's deputy, Vince Cable, a genial economist who takes credit for publicly warning of the financial crisis long before it struck.
Clegg, like the Tories, isn't straying far from the center ground, where British elections are usually decided. To be sure, some issues still set the two parties apart. For one thing, Cameron's Conservatives remain deeply skeptical of the European Union, while Clegg is an internationalist by conviction. (Also by birth: his mother is Dutch, and his father is half Russian, while Clegg himself is married to a Spanish senator's daughter.) But the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats share a philosophical mistrust of the big state, and Cameron has worked hard to inch his party closer to the center, emphasizing his own green leanings, his readiness to bash greedy bankers, and his pledge to build an ill-defined "Big Society," in which power is returned to the people.
In fact, the two young candidates—both are 43—have more in common than either might like to admit. Like his Eton-educated rival, Clegg is the product of a privileged upbringing, a banker's son who attended the elite Westminster School, founded in 1560. Again like Cameron, he exudes a self-assurance that goes with brains and a posh background. "Superficially they are very alike," says Nigel Gardner, who studied with Cameron at Oxford and later with Clegg at the College of Europe in Brugge, Belgium. "They are both intellectually able, capable of thinking things out for themselves regardless of their backgrounds, but with Nick there is an extra sense of being a free spirit."
But to fixate on the similarities is to miss the point. After 13 years of Labour in power, opinion surveys say the British public is famished for change—and Clegg now embodies that attribute in a way that Cameron can't hope to equal. As hard as the Tories may try (campaign slogan: "Vote for change"), the plain truth is that Cameron, having led in the polls for most of the past three years, appears to have peaked too soon. Clegg's face simply looked fresher when he popped up on live TV and went head-to-head with Cameron and Brown. Lord McNally describes the scene as "that perfect storm of disliked government and a mistrusted [Conservative] opposition and the arrival of someone else who is a genuinely unknown quantity."
The two parties are scrambling for a response to Clegg's sudden rise. Tory strategists recognize that snarling attacks on Clegg would only reinforce the Liberal Democrats' image as underdog victims of the political establishment. Instead they're stressing the risk of a hung Parliament, arguing that "a vote for the Lib Dems could leave us stuck with a continued economic crisis," in the words of Conservative veteran Ken Clarke. Labour politicians are taking a less cautious approach. Voters should be wary of Clegg's candidacy, warns Denis MacShane, a Labour member of Parliament and a regular contributor to NEWSWEEK INTERNATIONAL: "It is the most glittering product in the shop window, so people like it. But he may be a cappuccino politician—once the froth subsides, how much real coffee is there?" Both Cameron and Brown toughened their line against Clegg in last week's face-off. In one heated exchange, Brown told him to "get real" over Lib Dem plans to scrap Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines.
And Clegg knows how to push home an advantage. Onstage, he presents himself as being above the tired old slanging matches between the other two parties. ("The more they attack each other, the more they sound the same," he says.) And the electorate is desperately eager to believe he's offering something different. "People didn't know Clegg, but they could see that he was tall, good-looking, and seemed a nice guy," says political scientist Robert Hazell of University College London. "And they know they are bored with the two other parties." Win or lose, Clegg is proving that a third party needn't stay third forever.