Meet Nick Clegg: U.K.'s 3rd Party Comes of Age

LONDON -- Britain has been governed as a two-party democracy, for all intents and purposes, for three decades. Now, as volcanic ash strangles the nation's transportation back into the 19th century, the modern marvel of television is poised to shake the foundations of U.K. politics.

We Americans may have turned the diabolical gaze of television cameras onto our would-be leaders about half a century ago -- but Britain is a very old, tradition-obsessed nation. Change comes slowly.

But it's coming, and it looks like Nick Clegg. He's the leader of the Liberal Democrats party who, Friday morning, should be lying in bed and cuddling his television rather than his wife. He should probably even make it breakfast and then give it a foot rub.

Prior to Thursday's first-ever televised debate, most of Britain knew vaguely who Clegg was, but very few people had a clear idea of what his aspirations might be or how he would stack up on a level stage to his rivals.

Those rivals, current British Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Gordon Brown and Conservative Party boss David Cameron, lost the debate.

According to the battery of polls which started making news broadcasts about three minutes after the debate's end, Clegg won the event by anything from a five to 40 percent margin. Most tellingly, he gained the most in favorability compared to his rivals in before and after polling.

While some are calling this a surprise victory, it's important to remember that Clegg had the most to gain and virtually nothing to lose going into the tete-a-tete-a-tete.

Gordon Brown, whose political charisma rivals that of oatmeal, was expected to either bumble his way into a knot and then explode, or fly into a fit of rage and attempt to decapitate arch nemesis Cameron.

Cameron, a young, shiny-looking suave character who came to politics after a successful PR career, was expected to embarrass the other two gentlemen by dancing articulate circles around them.

Brown held his own. He didn't let his renowned temper peek through the facade of calm and weathered wisdom. Cameron relied heavily on anecdotes and stuck to his talking points, came across as slightly more scripted than one with his level of schmooze-experience should have, and likely failed to win any new hearts and minds.

That is what this series of three debates is all about: The Great Undecided of Britain. There are armies of them. Polls have shown as much as a third of this county is still unclear on which party to back in the May 6 election.

Winning over those voters is the sole intent of these three men and their battalions of door-knocking foot soldiers, who have interrupted my dinnertime for the last week.

Just an hour or so prior to the debate, one of my local city councilors, from the Labour Party, beseeched my wife to add her name to the "safe-vote" list on her clipboard. (As a non-resident I can't vote here, so I just stood in the doorway listening and throwing questions at Councilor Billi Randall, who was gracious enough to not dismiss me as a waste of her stumping time.)

My dear wife is representative of a great many of her fellow countrymen and women. She was born into a family with a proud history of backing one of the two main parties. From the diehard working class Northeast of England, she and her family have never cast a vote for anyone but Labour.

This year, however, she joined the ranks of The Great Undecided.

"What is it that's putting you off Labour?" Randall asked my tea-supping spouse.

Her answer likely reverberates in the minds of many long-time Labour supporters: "Gordon Brown." The man has a supreme image problem.

"I actually think Gordon Brown is better behind the scenes," Randall conceded, hinting that she'd heard the complaint before.

At the end of our chat Randall had made her points well and my wife was pretty much sold; back in the familiar arms of her Labour Party. "Oh, I think I'll probably end up voting Labour," she confessed.

But she wasn't enthused, and she decided not to let Randall add her name to the definitive list of supporters on the clipboard.

Then, two hours later, it happened. As I drank a glass of whisky while ironing and watching the debate (pretty typical TV viewer, I'd say), I beheld the power of television.

"I think I might actually vote for the Lib Dems," proclaimed my wife, about half-way through the debate.

Almost 10 million Britons tuned into the debate last night. I wonder how many others thought that?

Nick Clegg's party has a snowball's chance in an Icelandic volcano of winning enough seats in Parliament to become Britain's next Prime Minister. That isn't the point. They will remain, in all likelihood, the third party, the "other party" for many years.

But while the U.K. may be Americanizing their politics to some degree, one key difference is that in a British national election, there can actually be no winner at all.

If no one party wins enough seats to form a clear majority, then a coalition government will have to be formed.

Gordon Brown went out of his way during the debate to show just how much he and Clegg have in common on domestic policy -- the Prime Minister knows he may have to try and draw the Lib Dems into a power sharing deal.

That could give the Liberal Democrats more political power than they've had since the party was forged in the late 1980s.

More importantly, it could give millions of Britons who, like my wife, felt they only had two choices and weren't excited about either of them, another option to strongly consider.

Mr. Clegg has the live television format to thank for that. He was granted an opportunity, and he seized it.

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

  • Tucker Reals

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