Last week, Britain’s three main party leaders took part in the first of a series of live TV debates. Most betting was on a cautious and predictable trading of ritualised rhetoric, but as the credits rolled viewers – and astonished party bosses – knew that something seismic had happened. The third man of British politics, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, had wiped the stage with his opponents: round two is scheduled for this Thursday.
The British press has struggled to play catch up all week but for foreign correspondents used to covering a two-horse race they have a whole lot of explaining to do – how do you explain Nick Clegg in French?
“Something really started last Thursday,” says Rose Claverie, a London-based correspondent for several French newspapers, including Le Figaro and Libération. “So we have to do this story, we have to discover this new man. What does he mean, what does he reflect?”
Explaining British politics to foreign audiences has never been straightforward but one consolation for foreign correspondents based in Britain has always been that the country’s politics are so reliably changeless, an irregular rotation between the Labour and Conservative parties (the last prime minister to represent neither party left office in 1922). Britain’s first-ever televised leadership debate – a full half-century after Kennedy jousted with Nixon – might have changed that. Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have enjoyed an unprecedented spike in polling.
“I’d said a couple of times that [Clegg] could be the big winner from the debate,” says Peter Wilson, London-based Europe correspondent for The Australian (a newspaper which, as Wilson notes, is read by many British expatriates entitled to a vote). “And when I tracked him down the week before the debate, before Cleggmania set in, I was able to just grab him. I don’t think you could do that now.”
“The complication for us,” says Max Foster, who has been covering the campaign for CNN International, “is explaining not just Nick Clegg, but British politics, which are complex by foreign standards – so we have to explain what a hung parliament is, and so on.”
All three sound energised by the development, even as it upends their schedules (Claverie is hastily rewriting an election overview piece for the weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles). Just a few weeks ago, this contest was widely and wearily anticipated as a routine handover from a sulky, tired Labour prime minister to a somewhat unctuous Conservative upstart. While an outright win for Clegg’s Liberal Democrats would be freakish beyond imagining, almost every other possibility is up for grabs, and it isn’t just British people riveted by what will happen.