The first of three TV debates in the British national campaign brought Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to the considered attention of many voters for the first time. He made a strong impression as the reasonable man in beteween two parties that, for various reasons, fail to inspire. By most accounts he “won” the debate.
The last time the Liberal Party constituted a majority in Parliament was in the 1920s when it was eclipsed on the Center/Left by Labour. Since then the Liberal ticket has been a kind of retirement home for protest voters and those too fastidious to back a party with a real chance of governing.
Could that change in 2010? Clegg’s support grew by three percent after the debate, according to one poll, while Labour P.M. Brown’s vote dropped a point. The Conservative leader David Cameron did well enough in the debate to sustain the overall plurality the Tories enjoy in current surveys, but not well enough yet to secure a solid Parliamentary majority and avoid a hung Parliament.
If Cameron merely emerges with a plurality it would be very hard to form a Government. It might be even worse for them long term if they do form a government and have to compromise their principles even more than they do now.
The Liberals, in turn, have to hope that the two successive debates come out the same way so that voters get acclimated to the idea that the Liberals actually could govern. It might then seem an easy out for a jaded electorate: let’s try something really new.
Trouble is, the Liberals are not very “new”. They share the same overall big government mentality that afflicts Labour and most of the Conservatives. Their proffered “reforms” are meager ones (changes in how votes are tallied, for example) and don’t begin to address the fundamental challenges of reviving job-creating entrepreneurship, curbing the nanny state and growing the economy. The Conservatives at least are raising those issues and seem to have benefited by doing so.
You can expect the partisans of both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Brown—and their press allies—to point out the limitations of the Liberals in forthcoming encounters.
Meanwhile, for the first time there is at least a chance that lightning could strike and the Liberals could best Labour, placing it in third place, doing to that party in this century what that it did to the Liberals in the last.
Whoever comes in first under ambiguous circumstances may lead a country that cannot be very decisive about anything.