WITH two big stories, the British media are beside themselves with excitement. First, there are the hundreds of thousands of grounded airline passengers cursing a volcano (best joke so far: 'No, no, Iceland. What we asked you for was cash!'). Then Nick Clegg, the almost unknown leader of the small Liberal Democrats party, comfortably triumphed over Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the leaders' election debate on Thursday, throwing both the major parties into a panic.
What beats me is why anyone was surprised. The House of Commons has 646 MPs. It was an act of insanity for Labour (53 per cent of the seats) and the Conservatives (30 per cent) to agree to allow the Liberal Democrats (just under 10 per cent) to participate in these three debates. The Irish Labour Party has 12 per cent of TDs, but you wouldn't catch Brian Cowen or Enda Kenny giving Eamon Gilmore any unnecessary publicity. But then little old Ireland has been having leaders' elections debates for 30 years, and the parties know a thing or two, while the British have never done it before. Before every election, the leader of the opposition would ask for a debate, and the prime minister would refuse.
That Gordon Brown agreed was a sign that he was such an underdog that desperate measures were called for. It made it easier that he has such contempt for Cameron (on class grounds as much as anything) that he consistently underestimates him, despite his Oxford first and the strength of character he demonstrated when he and his wife rose magnificently to the challenge of looking after a dreadfully handicapped but much-loved son for six years until his death in 2009. When Cameron became leader in 2005 he had an unpopular party to detoxify so he stressed his niceness, a quality less admired when the country is in trouble, so for reasons of consistency, he can't release his inner ruthless bastard. Cameron is plastic to Gordon's granite, observed Peter Mandelson recently, to which Cameron responded that it was steel versus rust.
Brown doesn't think much of Clegg either, not least because he's smooth and softly spoken: not for nothing is his nickname Mr Bland. Yet there is much more to him: half-Dutch and a quarter-Russian, he's extremely well-educated, speaks four foreign languages, is widely travelled, has extensive experience as a journalist, EU official and then an MEP, and in 2007 won the leadership of the Lib Dems after only two years in the House of Commons.
In 1997, New Labour won a landslide by presenting themselves as attractive, modish and energetic bringers of change, so it's amusing to hear them attacking opponents for being young, inexperienced, all style and no substance. Their ammunition will now be trained on the Lib Dems as well, for Labour is shocked that not one but two 43-year- olds showed up the British prime minister as tired, defensive and slow on his intellectual feet. Cameron was in second place, but he was a lot better than Brown.
Clegg won the debate for reasons that should have been anticipated. His very anonymity with the electorate played in his favour; he could take more risks than Brown and Cameron because he had so little to lose; he could play them off against each other and lump them together as the two old flawed parties who play pass the parcel; and he did particularly well at portraying the Lib Dems -- who can get down and dirty with Labour and the Tories any day -- as the party of honesty.
Clegg's sums didn't add up, but then no sums do at the moment. Brown and Cameron wrangled a lot over £6bn (€6.8bn), a tiny sum when you consider the national debt is £850bn (€969bn), and borrowing this financial year is expected to be £176bn (€200bn). The UK isn't Iceland or Ireland or Portugal, but it is in a very bad way.
Because of the possibility there might be a hung parliament, Brown was aggressive with Cameron but kept creepily talking of how much he agreed with Clegg. And Mandelson, who was in charge of Labour spinning after the Manchester debate, talked up Clegg.
Labour thinking is that a stronger Lib Dem party will take seats away from the Tories: the danger is that if they get much stronger, they could push Labour into third place. It is a week to the next debate, during which the three party leaders will be regrouping and the Tory and Labour media will be savaging Clegg and his party in a way they have never experienced before.
But the election has caught fire for the hitherto apathetic public -- over nine million of whom watched on Thursday -- which makes it a great day for British democracy.