Clegg holds his new won ground: who will have to 'Get Real' now?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
23 April 2010

There was just one question in last night's leaders debate. Was Nick Clegg's popularity after the first debate just a bubble? That voters are looking for a way out from under the old regime is clear, in my view. What we want is 'a normal revolution'. To get it millions are projecting their desire onto the Liberal Democrats thanks to their leader. But there was a danger in this. If Brown and Cameron could break him, the movement would be decapitated. And the media-political class would have been able to gloat, crying that the whole thing was a contrivence of 'the media'. Last week Clegg has his chance to make a breakthrough and he did, magnificently. This week he had to hold his new won ground against a pincer movement. The direction of attack would be 'Nice chap but just not up to it'. 'Not really different'. 'Not serious'. The line was laid down by the Daily Mail Editorial on Wednesday, "It's time for voters to wake up and get real".

The Prime Minister duely spoke the script. "Get Real", said the great realist, who just before the financial  bubble burst had told the bankers that they were creating a "new golden age". 

But Brown is a heavyweight, used to deploying argument as a form of force. His presence is intimidating, his claim to authority considerable, even if he has screwed it up. Obviously if an inadequate Prime Minister tried this line, for example imagine John Major saying "Get Real" in his lightweight voice, it would be funny. But Brown has, and had then rehearsed the phrase to make it as crushing as possible, to force Clegg onto the defensive and show him up as a lightweight.

Nick brushed it aside in reply without skipping a beat. It wasn't what he said so much as the way he wasn't taking it and he deftly turned the force of the Prime Minister's claim to his own advantage. It was masterly. The moment secured his authority and with it the claim of the 'pencil revolution' that is waiting to tick the Lib Dem boxes on the ballot paper.

The question now is whether the Liberal Democrats can make the next breakthrough and become the largest party. My feeling is that they need to deploy their cabinet of talent. Its odd for outsiders, but they have been the outsiders for so long that they have the most experienced looking team. A photo shot of their leader with Vince Cable, Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne and others ready to take over the government as a whole may be the image they now need to project. Well done again!


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