Nick Clegg: How far can he – or his party – go?
Neil Clark: We could soon reach a tipping-point where Lib Dems are no longer just nice-guy losers
A week is a long time in politics, Harold Wilson once famously remarked. After the dramatic impact of last Thursday's live television debate between the three main party leaders, we can say that the late Labour Prime Minister was far too cautious in his judgment. One night is enough.
Before the debate, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was the clear third choice of the British electorate. Now he is a man rivalling Winston Churchill in the popularity stakes, with his party having the most popular support in a general election campaign for the first time since the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and the launching of the Lusitania.
The question is: how far can the man of the moment - and his party - go? Could we actually be on the brink of seeing Liberals holding Cabinet posts in a peace-time government in Britain for the first time since the days of the national government of the 1930s - or even be about to witness the first government led by a Liberal politician since 1922?
Prior to last Thursday, it was thought that the best the Lib Dems could hope for was holding the balance of power in a hung parliament - with Clegg able to extract concessions from the leading party, in return for support, in the way the Liberals supported James Callaghan's Labour government in 1977-78.
But if the Lib Dems do indeed top the poll in terms of votes cast (as the BPIX poll for the Mail on Sunday claims), or come second, or even a close third, it would be hard to justify leading members of the party not being offered Cabinet posts in the new government.
Moreover, if the Lib Dems did poll the highest share of the popular vote, then Clegg would arguably have the democratic mandate to say who should, or should not, be prime minister; some would even say that the job should go to Clegg himself, as Britain‘s most popular political leader.
Of course, there's still a way to go. The iniquities of Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system mean that even if the results of the BPIX poll - which put the Lib Dems on 32 per cent, one point ahead of the Conservatives and four points ahead of Labour - were replicated on May 6, Clegg's party would still only win 121 seats.
But while many believe that the extraordinary surge in Lib Dem support is just a temporary blip, it is equally possible that, after another good showing by the Lib Dem leader in this week's television debate, the party's popularity could soar even higher.
The Lib Dems have traditionally been handicapped in general elections by the widespread belief that a vote for them is a wasted vote, as they have next to no chance of forming the government.
But if they continue to top the polls, we could very soon - if we're not there already - reach a tipping point, with the Lib Dems transformed in people's eyes from perennial, nice-guy losers into a potential governing party.
The more probable the prospect of Liberal Democrat involvement in the next administration becomes, the more votes the party is likely to get, in the same way that a rising share price of a company attracts more investors. People like to back winners and at the moment it‘s Nick Clegg, and not David Cameron or Gordon Brown, who is looking like a winner.
If the Lib Dems are calling the shots after May 6, then their long-term prospects will be excellent. They will insist on the ditching of Britain's antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, which has worked so cruelly against them for so many years.
With the introduction of proportional representation, the age of single-party government, elected on a minority of the vote, will be out, and a new era of coalition government - featuring the Lib Dems in alliance with either Labour or the Conservatives and/or other parties too - will be in.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Vince Cable, a man who must now be a good bet to become the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, claims that "90 minutes of TV has at last broken the stranglehold which the two traditional parties have had for 80 years".
An election which threatened to be the most boring in living memory is now the most interesting in years.
Thanks to cartoonist MARF and politicalbetting.com for permission to use the illustration at the top of this item. ·
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