Clegg becomes kingmaker

2010-05-11 16:03

London – Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has emerged as the most powerful politician in Britain, after upping the ante in a power-sharing deadlock by deciding to negotiate with both the Conservatives and Labour.

The leader of the third-placed Liberal Democrats in Britain's hung parliament also arguably hastened the departure from power of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown by indicating he would not be able to work with him.

But while a country awaited his next move on Tuesday, Clegg must be pondering the risks of wooing both of the main parties.

Will he be seen as the kingmaker who helped to deliver stable government to a nation in uncertain economic times? Or as the leader of a small party who erased its distinctive identity by forcing them into compromise to get power?

After Monday's dramatic turn of events, Clegg welcomed Brown's decision to stand down as Labour leader and said it could help talks between the Lib Dems and Labour to form a government and resolve the post-election limbo.

Important element

The announcement "must have been a very difficult thing for him to say personally", Clegg conceded, but it would be an "important element" in negotiations to form a government.

The Lib Dems were thrust into the role of kingmakers when no party achieved an overall majority in Thursday's election, leading to a hung parliament.

Clegg immediately put David Cameron's Conservatives in the driving seat to form a government after sticking to what he had maintained during the election campaign – that the party which won the most seats should have first go.

After four days of meetings between Conservative and Lib Dem negotiators and two face-to-face discussions between Clegg and Cameron, the talks appeared to be making good progress on Monday.

But the first sign of a hitch appeared when it emerged Lib Dem lawmakers had asked the party's negotiators for "clarification" about the Tory offer on issues including their key demand on reforming the electoral system.

Brown’s resignation

Then Brown shifted everything with his dramatic statement that also included the fact that Clegg has asked to also open formal power-sharing negotiations with Labour.

That development pushed the Conservatives into a corner, and their chief negotiator William Hague hastily offered the promise of a referendum on electoral reform if the Lib Dems teamed up with them.

Hague, barely containing his irritation, said the Lib Dems now faced a clear choice – but warned it would be a "great mistake" for them to link up with Labour, the party that finished second in the election.

So from a position of having just 57 lawmakers in the 650-seat House of Commons, Clegg has managed to extract a considerable U-turn from the Conservatives, who have always opposed reforms to the voting system.

But he must tread carefully – his party rank-and-file are urging him not to compromise on electoral reform, perhaps the issue which defines the party.

Unlikely star

Clegg, a privately educated 43-year-old who was formerly a European Parliament lawmaker, emerged as the unlikely star of the election campaign.

His assured performances in Britain's first ever leaders' TV debates introduced him to a wider public than ever before and sparked "Cleggmania".

It was a marked change from the past – a BBC poll in September found 36% of voters had never heard of Clegg.

Yet when voters got to the ballot box, they appeared to forget their brief flirtation with the new man and the Lib Dems had what he admitted was a deeply disappointing night.

They actually lost a handful of seats – and once again they were victims of Britain's first-past-the-post system, having accumulated almost a quarter of the votes but fewer than 10% of the seats.

Hardly surprising then that Clegg wants electoral reform.

Proud traditions

Clegg became leader of the party which inherited the proud traditions of the Liberal party in December 2007, just two years after he first entered parliament representing Sheffield in northern England.

His family history is exotic – his Dutch mother was held in a Japanese internment camp before coming to Britain aged 12 and his wealthy banker father is half-Russian.

His wife Miriam is a Spanish lawyer and their three sons are bilingual. Clegg himself speaks four foreign languages.

His support for the EU and the euro and his international background has singled him out among British politicians.

But his privileged background and education at the elite Westminster school and Cambridge University has drawn comparisons with Eton-educated Cameron, whom he met at least twice in the last four days, before agreeing to talk to Labour.