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'Cleggmania' Sweeps Britain, Liberal Democrats Surge In Polls

Nick Clegg

Huffington Post   First Posted: 06/21/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:15 PM ET

A week ago, most people in Britain considered Nick Clegg, the "little-known leader" of the Liberal Democrats, to be, by all measures, a long shot to become Britain's next prime minister. But that was before "Cleggmania" swept the country.

The origins of Cleggmania can be traced to last week's televised debate -- a first in Great Britain -- in which Clegg was widely considered to have stolen the show from the leaders of Britain's two largest political parties: current Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, and Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The headline the next day in the London Times read "Clegg comes of age." A poll taken after the debate led the Guardian to declare that "Clegg is now in contention as potential PM."

To top it off, the latest YouGov poll shows the Liberal Democrats to now be in the lead with 34 percent of the vote. The Conservative Party came in second with 31 percent. A week ago the Liberal Dems were hovering around 16 percent. Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish referred to the poll result as "the earthquake in Britain." John Curtice of the Independent has called the Liberal Dems' surge "the biggest shock to the electoral landscape in years."

The hype around Clegg is so great that a writer for the Guardian has even taken to asking if Clegg is "the British Obama." They even mocked up a great photomontage of the famous Obama "Hope" poster featuring Clegg, which you can see here. (For the record, Clegg has also drawn comparisons to Winston Churchill and, the NYT's Lede blog notes, Jesus.)

This is not say that everyone is won over by the red-hot Clegg. London Mayor Boris Johnson mocked Clegg's rise in an article for the Telegraph:

Will this amazing and ludicrous burst of Cleggophilia keep the Tories from government? Will I have to cancel the summer holidays and sell the car to pay back my old chum Hastings? Will I hell. My bet remains quite safe. I am certain that the Tories will win, and that the current fantasy of a Liberal Democrat resurgence is the biggest load of media-driven nonsense since the funeral of Diana.

Meanwhile, an article on 538.com, the site which gained prominence for its astute analysis of the 2008 US election, took a look at the current poll data and asked: "Is the Lib-Dem surge for real?" The short answer was, "unlikely."

But back to the Obama comparison for a moment. Here's how the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman breaks down the idea, which he admits is an imperfect comparison:

Consider the Obama-Clegg parallels. Obama's sensibility developed during a childhood dominated by the absence of his father and his struggles to fit into communities in Hawaii and Indonesia; Clegg's outlook was forged in the crucible of his hardscrabble origins in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, his education at Westminster School in London, and his degree in archaeology and anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge. Obama had "Yes, we can". Clegg has "I agree with Nick". Obama, as a youth, flirted with hard drugs. Clegg set fire to a cactus.


These parallels aren't perfect, of course. They may even strike some readers as absurd. But what Clegg's rightwing and leftwing critics miss, as do predictably sarcastic journalists, is that this is precisely the point. To say that Nick Clegg is the British Barack Obama is not to suggest that he is an exact duplicate of the original, American Obama, transplanted to our shores. He's a British version.

Not everyone, even on the British left, is buying the comparison. Nicholas Watt of the Guardian argues that those suggesting Clegg is the UK's Obama "are clearly getting a little carried away." But, nonetheless, Watt entertains the idea that Clegg is experiencing an 'Iowa moment," in reference to the U.S. president's momentum-building victory in that state's primary in 2008.

Whether or not Clegg is the transformational figure such lofty comparisons suggest, his "extraordinary surge" continues to build, and according to at least one reporter, he is "growing in confidence". His approval rating is an "unprecedented" 72 percent. Yesterday, the Guardian asked whether Clegg's success was a result of him "exciting parts of the electorate never reached before." At the very least, another article in the paper noted, the fact that the Daily Mail is going after Clegg is a sign that he "must be doing something right."

As Clegg himself put it recently: "I think more and more people, a growing number of people, are just starting to believe that we can do something different this time."

WATCH: Clegg blasts the "recklessness" and "greed" of Goldman Sachs:


Should Clegg manage to turn the groundswell of support indicated by the polls into actual votes come election day, it could lead to what is known as a "hung parliament", which means that no party has gained an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons. A poll last week found that this was an outcome favored by 32 percent of voters. Some politicians have warned that such a result could severely harm the UK's economy. Conservative Party leader David Cameron said such an outcome would be "damaging" to Britain.

While there has been speculation that, in the event of a hung parliament, Clegg would "jump into bed" (as the Times put it) with the Labour party, Clegg lashed out today at Gordon Brown, in what the Telegraph called his "most outspoken" attack yet, saying the Prime Minister was a "desperate politician."

WATCH Last Week's Debate:

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