The Clegg effect: Will it last another week?

LONDON, United Kingdom — If Britain’s coming election was once seen as a toss-up between two contenders, all bets were off this week after the country’s first-ever televised leadership debate delivered a seismic jolt to the country’s political landscape.

While Labour incumbent Gordon Brown and his hitherto main rival David Cameron of the Conservative Party may have held their own in the first debate seven days ago, victory in that event — according to mercurial opinion polls — belonged to a man few people abroad and just as few at home had heard of.

Such was the size of the collective swoon that greeted Nick Clegg, the head of the centrist Liberal Democrat party, that newspapers declared it “Cleggmania.” The one-time outsider was likened to both Barack Obama and that most hallowed of British statesmen: Winston Churchill.

If sustainable, Clegg’s elevation to a genuine prospect for prime minister in the May 6 vote could prove truly historic. The last Liberal to hold the top job in Britain was David Lloyd George, a libidinous Welshman who led Britain to war against Germany in 1914 before seeing his party’s power usurped by the upstart Labour Party a decade later.

A slew of bad headlines ahead of tonight’s debate may have slightly dented Clegg’s popularity, but Cameron was taking no chances on the campaign trail this week. He appropriated his new rival’s claim to be a force for change and — ironically for a candidate representing the venerable Conservative party — painted himself as anti-establishment.

As the debate, which focused on foreign policy, got underway, it was clear Cameron had also been scrutinizing Clegg’s performance a week earlier, adopting his much-praised trick of addressing viewers down the barrel of the camera, even as he resorted to awkward anecdotes of the kind that earned him derision in the first showdown.

Brown, who spent the past week trying to underline his prime ministerial credentials by deploying naval vessels to rescue volcano-stranded British travelers, chose a different tack, portaying himself as a solid politician who struggles in the glare of a TV popularity contest. Head high, he declared: “If it’s all about style and PR, count me out.”

What Brown and his challengers were about this week, in contrast to the collegiate and pedestrian exchanges of a week earlier, was an open declaration of hostilities. They launched broadsides on each other’s policies on such topics as Britain’s place in Europe, its nuclear weapons and its unpopular involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan.

Brown declared Cameron “a risk to the economy” and Clegg “a risk to our security.” Clegg accused the Conservatives of consorting with “nutters and anti-Semites” in the European Parliament, while Cameron attacked Brown for his party’s “lies” over benefits for the elderly.

After both the Labour and Conservative leaders were criticized a week earlier for giving Clegg an easy ride (their frequent use of the phrase “I agree with Nick” has been adopted as a Liberal Democrat slogan), this time they gave him no quarter.

“I have to deal with these issues every day and I say to you, Nick, get real,” Brown said, addressing Clegg over his opposition to a replacement of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Cameron warned the Liberal Democrat against putting himself “on a pedestal” as he attacked Labour and Conservative politicians’ record over expenses claims.

Both Brown and Cameron also sought to emulate Clegg in distancing themselves from the other two men.

“These two guys remind me of my two young boys squabbling at bathtime, squabbling about referendums on the EU when what we need is jobs and growth and recovery,” Brown said during a clash over European Union policy. “I’m afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti-American and both are out of touch with reality.”

Cameron, also on Europe, stressed: “You can tell there’s a real difference between us.”

With everything to lose in his second exposure on an equal footing with the parties that may soon be seeking his help in forming a coalition, Clegg did seem to hold his own. Early opinion polls showed that what newspapers have been calling the “Clegg bounce” shows no sign of diminishing.

“Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be different,” said Clegg, savoring his moment to have the last word of the night. “It can.”