London: The once little-known leader of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, has blown the election campaign wide open with a surge in the polls after his confident showing in a leaders’ television debate.
Previously largely ignored by the media, Nick Clegg has seized the centre stage from the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, who has been ahead in opinion polls for about two years.
Clegg’s party has moved into second place, above the ruling Labour Party, in some polls in recent days.
It is extremely unlikely to win enough seats to form a government because of the way the electoral system is weighted, but would hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, where no one party enjoyed an overall majority of seats.
Voters appear to be responding to Clegg’s call to “try something different”. Many said he appeared “genuine and personable” in his 90 minutes of prime-time television exposure during the country’s first such leaders’ debate.
Clegg, 43, the privately educated son of a banker, has enjoyed a rapid rise since entering British politics in 2005, becoming party leader two years later.
Born to a Dutch mother and half-Russian father, and married to a Spanish lawyer, he is the most pro-European Union of the main party leaders and can speak five languages.
Clegg was an adviser at the European Commission before becoming a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004.
In Britain’s 2005 election, he was elected member of parliament for the Yorkshire constituency of Sheffield Hallam in northern England, when the Liberal Democrats picked up votes from Labour supporters angry over the Iraq war.
Since taking charge of the party he has steered it away from a previous tax-and-spend agenda.
He has whittled down a slate of expensive pledges to four election promises: fairer taxation, higher school funding for younger children, infrastructure investment and political reform.
His former enthusiasm for Britain’s entry into the euro single currency will prove unpopular among those who want to retain national financial independence.
But the party’s criticism of the banking sector, largely blamed for the financial crisis, has appealed to voters, helped by its media-savvy finance spokesman Vince Cable.