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Sunday 25 April 2010

Clegg's novelty value gives him the X factor in TV debates

An outsider leads the popularity stakes in the political talent show on British television, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE Liberal Democrats doing injured innocence is calculated to get those who know them well gibbering with rage. Even the veteran broadcaster John Humphrys found it hard to contain his indignation on the BBC Today programme as the Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander complained piously of an orchestrated smear campaign against party leader Nick Clegg after his success in the first electoral debate created a surge in the polls. "The Lib Dems have done a fair bit of smearing in their time," remarked Humphrys; who also was annoyed by the new Lib Dem mantra about the uselessness of the "the old parties"

"The Libs have been around for a very long time," he pointed out (1859, to be precise ) without effect.

What's really annoying the Lib Dems is that now that the television debate has catapulted them from being outsiders into serious contenders to push Labour into third place, they are coming under scrutiny of the kind the two big parties have always had to endure.

On Thursday, the day of the second debate, the lead story in the Sun was 'Clegg on his face: which included allegations about donor's money going into his private bank account to fund a job in his office and was the focus of the Daily Telegraph's splash: 'Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem donors and payments into his private account'.

There wasn't too much to this story, since what he was doing was irregular but legal; but at a time when Clegg has shamelessly been implying that his party was clean in the expenses scandal, there was embarrassing detail on his own greedy claims and his: '10 years on the EU gravy train".

The Daily Express front page denounced 'Clegg's crazy immigration policy' (amnesty for several hundred thousand asylum-seekers), there were criticisms on air and in print of many Lib Dem policies that politicians and journalists had mostly ignored in the past, and in the debate Gordon Brown and David Cameron gave him a harder time than before.

Brown, who had wooed him in the first debate, even produced as a put-down a line he had prepared earlier: "These two guys remind me of my two boys at bath time — they a e squabbling:'

Clegg continues to do well what Sarah Palin calls "the hopey-changey thing", which is tough on Cameron who lad been using it as his unique selling point until Clegg came to public attention.

But Cameron and Brown had somewhat upped their game, and Clegg's novelty-value was somewhat reduced; and so instead of clearly winning the debate, on average the polls showed him at 34 per cent to Cameron's 33 per cent and Brown's 28 per cent.

'Cameron wins with passion', crowed the Daily Express, 'The Cam back kid', shouted the Sun and the Telegraph recorded 'Cameron fights back'.

The left- wing Daily Mirror registered disagreement with 'One foot in the Dave', but all that is froth from partisan sources.

What would really have been rattling the 'Labour and Tory HQs is that since there were around only four million viewers compared to nine million the previous week, there are five million whose memory of Clegg's startlingly effective debut is unsullied.

Additionally, there's the realisation that the election has become a three-horse race and it is the fault of the "old" parties for failing to understand that in the era of talent competitions that can make the unknown Susan Boyle a multimillionairess almost overnight, the electorate may be prepared to switch their votes just because they like the look of the new bloke with the yellow tie.

Charles Moore, the veteran Tory commentator, remarked in last week's Spectator that "people want, above all, a change'.

But they are so fed up that they include in what they want changed absolutely everything which they associate with power in this country. Unfortunately for the Tories, that still includes them."

The prospect of a hung parliament is an absolute nightmare for the Conservatives, for the Lib Dems will do no deal without electoral reform — and if any kind of proportional representation is introduced, the Tories can say goodbye to the prospect of ever having again the size of majority that enabled Margaret Thatcher to bring in radical change.

Peter Mandelson is intent on completing the New Labour project of uniting Labour and the Lib Dems; and although it was Brown who always blocked any

change in the voting system, he is now proposing a version that would favour the left.

With less than a fortnight to go, can Clegg be unmasked in time as an untested career politician who was once a lobbyist and who is out of step with the British public in his enthusiasm for the EU? Or is the British public feeling so bloody-minded that it will tie the knot with him just for the hell of it?

No one knows.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards