Clem Sunter

The Clegg phenomenon

2010-04-28 12:17

The course of the British election campaign so far illustrates to a “T” why you should use the foxy methodology of scenario planning rather than trying to predict the result in advance. I don’t know of a single political commentator in Britain, or America for that matter, who gave Nick Clegg – the leader of the Liberal Democrats – any chance of leading his political party to victory.

One televised debate changed the whole game and now there are four feasible outcomes: The Labour Party, The Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats win an outright majority of parliamentary seats; or Britain has a hung parliament where two parties have to combine to achieve an outright majority.

The last scenario looks increasingly likely. David Cameron, the leader of the Tories, has said – and he would, wouldn’t he – that a hung parliament could lead to “bickering, horse-trading and arguing”. He added: “We might end up with a Prime Minister who wasn’t even involved in these TV debates.” This could hinder the changes that the country badly requires.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown is desperately trying to overcome his dour, somewhat elderly image – compared to his two younger, more charismatic rivals – with the argument that steady hands are required to lead the British economy to a full recovery. He points to the fact that he made a major contribution to fixing the global banking crisis. Yet his claim to being the experienced statesman among the three candidates for leader does not appear to be turning the tide.

Clegg, on the other hand, is growing in stature despite attempts by the conservative and left-wing media to make him out as an unreliable character prone to making outlandish statements about the state of the British nation. He was even accused of inappropriate behaviour in accepting campaign contributions; but  - like a true fox – he immediately responded by publishing his personal bank statements to allay any public anxiety on this issue.

Interestingly, he is a toff like Cameron in that he went to Westminster, a very distinguished private school. It is not quite as exclusive as Eton which Cameron attended, and is probably the reason why he comes across as middle as opposed to upper class. He lacks the smoothness of manner that Cameron possesses. Nevertheless, this could be to his advantage in that he is not such an easy target for the Labour Party to make disparaging statements about. Remember the jibe that Cameron’s policies were formulated on the playing fields of Eton.

On one theme, Clegg has views diametrically opposed to Brown and Cameron. It relates to the impending modernisation of Britain’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. He maintains that instead of expensively upgrading the missile delivery systems which were essentially created to combat the threat of a Soviet attack during the Cold War, money should be diverted to improve the equipment that the British army is currently using in Afghanistan. Moreover, the changing nature of the nuclear threat – from war between countries to nuclear terrorism – should figure in any decisions taken on what constitutes a proper deterrent. He was also totally against the war in Iraq and feels that Britain in future must assert greater independence in her conduct of affairs with the United States.

Can the power of television, his rugged looks and popularity with the youth yield success at the polls for Clegg? He strikes me as a latter-day Joseph Chamberlain, the dashing politician of the late 19th century who enjoyed a brief dalliance with my great-great aunt Beatrice Webb (an arch socialist). I give him a 10% chance of winning outright along with Brown, while I would give Cameron a 20% chance. That leaves a 60% chance of a hung parliament.

Given Britain’s budget deficit of 12.5% of GDP and national debt approaching 100% of GDP (the recommended ceilings in the European Union are three percent and 60% respectively), the most probable scenario is the worst case scenario. A tough new administration with a clear mandate to make government more cost-effective and efficient is what the country needs. The odds are stacked against this; but maybe somewhere Nick Clegg (along with his formidable colleague Vince Cable) can usher in a new approach to remedy the situation.

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Read more on:    gordon brown  |  david cameron  |  nick clegg  |  uk elections
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