The Take

Clegg refuses to buckle during televised debate in Britain

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 7:56 PM

Nick Clegg faced an energized David Cameron and a reinvigorated Gordon Brown in Thursday's second televised debate of the British election campaign. But the upstart leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, who has shaken up the election campaign, did not buckle under concerted attacks from his rivals, setting up a fascinating run to the finish.

It took the British politicians only a week to adapt fully to American-style candidate debates. If their first encounter a week ago was relatively polite and gentle, their second was marked by sharper exchanges and a sense of urgency on the part of the two major-party leaders, whose hopes for winning a majority of seats in the next Parliament has been dramatically diminished by Clegg's emergence.

Clegg was a man in the middle on Thursday, positioned on stage between Brown, the prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, and Cameron, the leader of a Conservative Party. And for 90 minutes he took criticism from his left and right. He was described as a threat to national security, as too pro-European and too anti-American, and as too open to immigrants.

But in a country where disgust with politicians is as deep as it is in the United States, Clegg stood his ground with an appeal to British to vote for a break from the past -- 13 years of Labor governments and a nearly a century in which the Conservatives dominated the country's politics.

"Don't let anyone tell you this time it can't be different," he said. "It can." Clegg was the overwhelming winner of the first debate and he was rewarded with a remarkable surge in the polls. The Liberal Democrats are the smallest of the three biggest parties in Britain and at a clear disadvantage in the country's electoral system. But his party's sudden and unexpected rise, if sustained until the May 6 election, threatens to assure the first hung Parliament in Britain since 1974.

That reality brought a different dynamic to the second debate. Cameron, who saw Clegg snatch the issue of change away from him in the first debate, fired back sharply on Thursday. He warned of chaos if there is a hung Parliament and argued that only his party can produce "a clean break" from 13 years of Labor Party rule.

Brown, trying to charge back after seeing his party slip into third place in some recent polls, hammered on his strongest argument, which is that voters should not trust the other parties to sustain a fragile recovery that is now beginning to take hold. Knowing that Cameron remains his greatest threat, he attacked the Conservative leader as "a risk to the economy" and someone who would leave Britain "isolated in Europe."

But his opening statement exposed the major vulnerability of a politician who is strong on substance but short on personality. He asked people to believe that he would get the big issues right. "Like me or not," he said, "I can deliver."

Brown repeatedly went after Clegg. "Get real," he exclaimed to Clegg at one point during a discussion about the modernization of nuclear weapons. Clegg opposes plans to spend tens of billions on the aging Trident missile fleet, arguing that it is a relic of the Cold War that should be subject to review.

As Clegg defended himself, Cameron chimed in, "I thought I'd never utter these words, but I agree with Gordon."

There is almost nothing that Brown and Cameron agree on, other than that Clegg has upset all their calculations of a fierce two-party competition for power. But having pushed his way into the middle of the voters' consciousness, thanks to the televised debates, the question for Clegg is whether he can sustain the momentum through a third debate next week and the balloting the week after that.

Even before the debate, the expected counterattacks against Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were coming full force, with a series of newspaper stories in the conservative papers challenging his record and policies.

In the debate, Clegg clawed back at his rivals, denouncing as "ludicrous scare stories" the charge that a hung Parliament would bring chaos to Britain and its economy and challenging Brown on Labor's record.

The debate underscored his new stature. The novelty of Clegg-as-serious-candidate was missing. Now he was one among three, forced to answer for positions on issues -- immigration for example -- that are not popular with the voters.

Instant polls in Britain showed a far closer verdict on the second debate, which reflected what happened on stage. A Populus poll for the Times found that 37 percent judged Cameron the winner, 36 percent awarded the debate to Clegg and 27 percent named Brown. An ICM poll for the Guardian put Clegg at 33 percent, with Cameron and Brown both at 29 percent.

Cameron likely will emerge from the second debate with greater confidence and Brown with even more determination. But Clegg is not going away. A British campaign that turned unexpectedly lively just a week ago remains just as unpredictable today and heading toward an uncertain finish in two weeks.

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