Just one cycle ago, we witnessed what could be considered perhaps one of the greatest debate performances in modern Western political history. In the first debate of the 2010 U.K. General Election, and indeed the first such debate ever televised in the U.K., both challengers – Gordon Brown, Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, as well as David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives – seemed to fawn over Clegg, with the most-repeated phrase uttered being “I agree with Nick”. And so started Cleggmania. Nick Clegg, the upstart leader of the perennial third party Liberal Democrats, was now the most popular man in Britain. Opinion polls showed 51% of the audience believing he won that three-way debate. His party shot as high as second in some polls. The era of two party dominance seemed to be over. Perhaps he would even become Leader of the Opposition, or Prime Minister.
Oh, how things have changed.
On May 7th, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party were dealt a stunning blow. Gaining only eight seats in Parliament, down 48 from the election prior. Nick Clegg resigned as leader of the party the very next morning.
Can the rise and fall of Nick Clegg provide a case study on political strategy? Where did that brilliant performance from 2010 go?
The morning after the 2010 election, Clegg had a choice to make. Does he attempt to form a coalition government with Labour, as his party might seemingly prefer? Or, attempt to form a coalition with the David Cameron and the Conservatives, who won the most seats (but not a majority)? With the specter of a serious economic crisis looming over Europe and the U.K., Clegg chose Cameron after a few days of negotiation.
While many thought that the coalition would not last, it did, and Clegg was an important part of that, even though doing so damaged his party politically. Supporters were disillusioned, Labour voters saw the Liberal Democrats as willing accomplices in austerity, and Conservatives resented the inter-coalition struggles.
Clegg’s biggest gain from the coalition negotiation was for the Alternative Vote referendum, which was lost badly and only served to further damage his image.
The 2015 election was his chance to work his old magic and perhaps provide that same influence in what was predicted to be another hung parliament. But Clegg seemed resigned to defeat. Maybe he had become a cynic. He predicted that he would not “win” the debates, he admitted to not preparing nearly as well as he had, and seemed skeptical to their influence on the election. Perhaps he harbored a cynical perspective from 2010, where despite his excellent performance he netted far fewer seats than was thought at the height of Cleggmania. He seemed a man disillusioned with the process.
He was repeatedly offered a sort of mea culpa. Voters asked, if he was in the same position again in 2015, would he deal with Labour over the Conservatives? Again, he stuck to his stated principle over the seemingly politically beneficial answer. He said that, like 2010, he would first negotiate with the party that won the most seats.
Despite all this, on the night of this year’s election it seemed at first that Clegg would be in a very similar position he was in 2010. A chance to be kingmaker, and a chance at electoral reform once again. In the end, however, David Cameron was able to pull together a small Conservative majority on his own. And it is unclear if there is enough political will yet for another electoral reform referendum.
Time will only tell if this episode was a profile in courage – a man who sacrificed his political future for the good of his nation (stability in a time of crisis, and a strong defense of constitutional precedence), or whether this was just a case of a politician with potential and talent, not living up to it.
For now, it is clear that the electorate rejected Nick Clegg and his vision for the Liberal Democrats. But his political career is most certainly not over. With just eight MPs, it is almost certain that Clegg will have some position of prominence in the new (albeit, less influential) party. His last speech as leader of the Lib Dems showed a clear attempt to redefine himself from a puppet in an unpopular coalition government, back to being the outsider that he once was. Cameron does not have a strong majority, and has a lot of fractious issues to deal with in the coming months, including regarding the EU and Scotland issues. The Liberal Democrats could find themselves in a position to become more relevant again. And although it will not be with Nick Clegg as their leader, they will have him to thank for leading them thus far.
Cover photo: Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown debate, April 22, 2010. Source: Ken McKay/ITV/Reuters.