Nick Clegg: Stealing Britain's Change

This news analysis was written by's Tucker Reals in London.

"Real change. Change you can count on."

I wish I'd counted the times Conservative Party leader and aspiring British Prime Minister David Cameron evoked that powerful mantra last night. I'd have run out of fingers.

Campaigning for "change" should be easy for the party which has sat on the sidelines in the U.K. since 1997. Cameron and the Conservatives adopted the strategy months and months ago -- not long after it worked so well for Barack Obama across the pond.

It was going well for them. The British public, like any public, is above all things fickle. Cameron rode high in the polls on his chariot of change for some time, a fact that the incumbent Labour Party and Prime Minister Gordon Brown were hard-pressed to combat.

After all, Labour has had 13 years to make the U.K. into everyone's utopia but, alas, has failed. Time for some change!

Cameron is a young, smart, savvy politician - the ideal front-man for one of Britain's oldest political parties to sell themselves as something novel.

And, if brought to power in the May 6 national elections, the Conservatives would, quite literally be a change. According to England's own geniuses at Oxford, change is defined as, "an instance of becoming different." Yes, the Conservatives are not Labour, so they would be different. It would be change.

Simple. Election over. Change to win it.

Stop! Thief! Another young, smart, savvy politician has stolen "change" from Mr. Cameron and is refusing to let go.

Above: Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, left, and Conservative leader David Cameron prepare to take part in Britain's second televised election debate, in Bristol, England, April 22, 2010.

Nick Clegg, leader of Britain's "third" party, the Liberal Democrats, insists the Conservative party (which has been around since the early 1800s, or the 1600s, depending on how you count it) isn't actually offering any "real change".

For that, says Clegg, Britain must abandon the "old parties" and bring his own band of merry men into power.

Clegg's superior performance in Debate No. 1 last week brought him out of the shadows of Parliament right to the forefront of the British political debate.

He won the first debate hands down, partly because his two rivals simply didn't perform as well, and partly because many Briton's realized for the first time last week they actually have a third option.

Despite the best attempts of the party spin-masters to convince us otherwise, there was no clear winner in last night's highly rehearsed, made-for-TV spectacle.

Please read this Guardian column on the U.K. media's attempt to ape American debate punditry. It's time well spent.

Polls show Cameron and Clegg in a virtual dead heat. Gordon Brown isn't far behind and, if anything, fared best on the night by gaining in approval compared to his previous ratings.

Cameron spent much of the night railing predictably against Brown. The rest he spent using the word's "real change" like a pop song refrain and trying desperately to stare deep into the eyes of television viewers. You could actually see him thinking, "must remember to look in camera." He's yet to master the art, but he clearly learned something from watching Cameron.

The problem for Clegg now is that in one, very practical way, Cameron is absolutely right.

With the lines drawn around Great Britain's electoral map as they are, it's impossible for the Lib Dems to win enough seats in Parliament to make Clegg the next prime minister. His party will not lead.

So that leaves the Conservatives as the only option for voters who want a complete replacement of all those in power. Cameron, however, faces an almost equally daunting challenge. For the Conservatives to lead the next government, they have to win 116 new seats in Parliament.

That is a tall ask, and in all likelihood the election will end in a hung Parliament and Gordon Brown knocking on Clegg's door to form a coalition government.

The real question then, is would Britain rather "change" back into a Conservative country, which it has been many times over the last 200 odd years, or settle for a "half-change" with power shared by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

According to the polls, they aren't sure yet. Next Thursday, the 3rd and final debate will focus on the economy - a perceived strength for Brown.

It will likely determine which brand of change Britain is in the mood for.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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