The Lib Dems must be relishing in their post-debate glory. The polls have recorded results they could only have dreamed of achieving previously, and their leader has gone from Unknown to Winston Churchill in the popularity stakes. Whilst the Labour leadership is happy about this unexpected turn of events, as it has decimated the Tory lead, it’s brave smiles all round in the Tory camp; George Osborne described wholly unconvincingly “another great week for the Tories” on Sunday’s The Politics Show. In response to the Lib Dem bounce in the polls, Cameron has repeatedly – ad nauseam – said, “We’ll be doubling up on the positive” or, “A vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Gordon Brown.” The Tories have been tireless in their efforts to warn the public that a hung parliament situation with Brown remaining as leader is a possibility if they don’t achieve a decisive win.
However, the Tories might not have much to worry about after the next TV debate. Nick Clegg will have to face the mammoth challenge of tackling mass Euroscepticism. The British public is, at best, ambivalent about the country’s integration into the EU. The Lib Dems have argued for such integration and still entertain the idea of the UK adopting the euro in the not-too-distant future – though not until the economy has fully recovered, and only after being given the green light by a referendum. Cameron, who was clearly a bag of nerves during the first debate, may well come into his own in Thursday’s debate and put Clegg on the defensive.
To win the foreign affairs debate, the Lib Dem leader will have to emphasise his party’s position on the Iraq War – a definite crowd pleaser. Both Labour and the Tories will struggle on this issue. “If we had known before that there weren’t actually any weapons of mass destruction…” (or something to that effect) was hardly a satisfying response from David Miliband on yesterday’s Daily Politics election debate, and it certainly won’t do for the leaders’ debate. Yet at least Brown can demonstrate that he’s experienced in the realm of foreign affairs, whereas Clegg is a bit of a novice. And singeing cacti with a lighter in Germany is hardly exemplary behaviour when it comes to international relations (i.e. Clegg’s infamous story of destroying cacti while on a German exchange trip with his school).
Another factor that could lead to Clegg’s downfall is low voter registration. The Lib Dems are most popular among young people, with one poll giving them a huge lead of 44 points among those aged 18-34. Yet figures issued last month by the Electoral Commission suggested that more than half of eligible votes under the age of 25 weren’t on the electoral roll. Many younger people have been registering over the last fortnight or so, but it’s optimistic to assume that they will all cast their vote on 6 May. At the 2005 election, only 37% of young people voted.
Boris Johnson has made public his own perceptions of the Lib Dem bounce in an article in the Telegraph, suggesting that Clegg’s popularity will soon drop anyway. According to Boris, “Next week they will be gone with the wind. Clegg is the beneficiary of cunning Labour spin, bigging up the third party in order to take the shine off the Tories.” He goes on argue that once the electorate has recognised that a vote for the Lib Dems is essentially a vote for Brown, it will throw its support behind the Tories. It will indeed be interesting to see if British voters can break away from the norm of tactical voting in this election, or if they will revert to the mentality bred and nurtured by our FPTP electoral system and resulting two-party system.
I disagree with Boris that the Clegg hype is of Labour design; it’s the media that has whipped up this frenzy, with vast exaggerations of the qualities the Lib Dem leader showed he possessed by performing relatively well in one debate. Thursday evening will test the man behind the hype and reveal that he is not a Churchill – Winston or car insurance. At best, he might be a British Obama, “but perhaps this is just another way of saying that he is the new Tim Henman” (see Guardian article on Clegg as Obama). Nick Clegg will have to really impress in the foreign affairs debate to prove – to both his new fans and his sceptics – that he’s not just a one-hit wonder.