This time last week, the UK General Election was looking a bit dull, with the parties squabbling over small policy differences. Now, suddenly, the election is alive. Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, has stormed into a very narrow lead after Nick Clegg won Thursday night’s first-ever British election debate. A large but evidently shallow lead, held by David Cameron’s Conservatives since October 2007, has evaporated under the TV lights.
We do not know if it will last. Comparisons are being made with Ross Perot’s debate-winning performance in 1992, which created only a short-term boost for the maverick businessman from Texas. But time is short for Clegg’s bubble to burst. There are only 17 days until Britain votes.
A conventional political attack could focus on the Liberal Democrats’ left-wing policies. These include heavy taxation of air travel, an amnesty for illegal immigrants, decriminalization of “soft” drugs, and reduced use of imprisonment. Such a policy-focused attack may not work, however. Voters are attracted to Clegg because he offered an anti-politics message in the debate. He presented himself as the outsider who would clean up Parliament. That’s a message voters want to hear. The reputation of all British MPs collapsed last year under the weight of stories about their abuse of taxpayer-funded expenses.
If there is a hung parliament and Clegg forms part of the resulting coalition government, the obvious implication is a change to Britain’s voting system. The Lib Dems’ top demand is proportional representation. If PR is introduced, you could see an end to Britain’s existing political parties. Over time, fringe parties on left and right could easily emerge.
Finally, the Lib Dems would also have a big impact on UK foreign policy. Clegg does not want Britain to have an independent nuclear deterrent. He supports earlier withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. He wants Britain to move closer to the European Union and farther away from the USA. The U.S. doesn’t even get a mention in his party’s manifesto. His party won a good number of seats at the last election by currying favor with anti–Iraq War Muslim communities, and that has reinforced a very timid approach to the war on terror.
— Tim Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome.com.