Were it not for a hung Parliament which has catapulted him into the position of a kingmaker, Nick Clegg would have struggled to keep his job after the election debacle.
The most intriguing story of the British elections and one which has gone almost unnoticed in the drama over the hung Parliament is the virtual collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the stars of the campaign. At one stage — after their leader Nick Clegg's “victory” in the television debates — they seemed to be the only show in town, the ultimate answer to the political duopoly of Labour and the Tories.
The media spoke of a “Cleggmania” sweeping the country with Labour and the Tories under “pressure to respond to the Clegg phenomenon”, as The Sunday Times breathlessly reported after the first debate. Polls after polls had the Lib Dems neck-and-neck with the Tories and way ahead of Labour. Indeed, such was the hype that Mr. Clegg secretly started fancying himself as the next Prime Minister portraying the election as a “two-horse race” between his party and the Tories.
In the event, it turned out to be a disaster. The party lost as many as 13 sitting MPs, including several high-profile figures, and despite picking up some new seats it ended up with fewer seats than it had in the outgoing Parliament. And this when it was predicted to double its tally. As an Observer writer noted: “All that publicity, that huge push, the media hand-holding and they still come third, with fewer seats than they had before. Clegg led them like the dad who didn't think to empty out the potatoes for the school sack race.”
Were it not for a hung Parliament which has catapulted him into the position of a kingmaker, Mr. Clegg would have struggled to keep his job. Some of his predecessors were sacked for lesser offences. He has been forced to acknowledge the party's pathetic performance but has blamed it on the quirks of the current first-past-the-post system saying that “even though more people voted for us than ever before, even though we had a higher proportion of the vote than ever before …we have returned to Parliament with fewer MPs than ever before”.
But not everyone is buying his line and there have been calls for a serious review of the party's tactics that, critics believe, failed to build on the momentum created by the first two TV debates. There is a view that, ultimately, the party became a victim of the post-debate hype which led it to overestimate its strength. Also, the party's policies seemed to crumble under closer scrutiny — and Mr. Clegg started to sound more and more like any other politician as he kept repeating the mantra of “change” without offering a concrete vision. According to Andrew Cooper of polling agency, Populus, about 70 per cent of voters believe that while the Lib Dems “seem like decent people …their policies probably don't add up”.
But what does it say about the impact of television debates which, we were told, had “transformed” the campaign from a predictable two-horse race into an exciting three-way contest and done wonders in helping people “re-engage” with politics? Whatever happened to the “millions” of voters who were said to be “flocking” to the Lib Dems after being “galvanised” into action by the debates?
On the other hand, we had Gordon Brown who was widely ridiculed for his stuttering performance which threatened to push Labour into third position. Yet, Labour alone among the three main parties did better than what the post-debate polls had predicted.
If the Lib Dems failed to take off despite Mr. Clegg's “electrifying” television feat, so did the Tories despite David Cameron's supposedly barnstorming appearance.
There is anger in the party over its disappointing election results which have left it begging the Lib Dems for support. According to the pro-Tory Times the anger is “bubbling dangerously close to the surface” with critics blaming the poor showing on the way the campaign was conducted by Mr. Cameron and a small inner circle of friends and aides. One senior MP was reported in the Observer as saying that Mr. Cameron ran the campaign “from the back of his Jaguar with a smug, smarmy little clique”.
“He should get rid of all of them. The party will settle for nothing less,” he said.
Meanwhile, other “surprises”, overshadowed by the excitement over the hung Parliament, included the unlamented electoral demise of the far-Right British National Party (BNP) which failed to win even a single seat, suffering huge losses even in its supposed strongholds. Its leader Nick Griffin's ambition to be elected to Parliament as his party's first-ever MP was dashed despite a high-profile and often intimidating campaign. The party fielded a record number of candidates hoping to exploit anti-immigration backlash among white, working-class voters. But a spirited campaign, Hope not Hate, by Labour and anti-racist activists put paid to its hopes. It shows how fragile the BNP's support base was; and how wrong Labour and other mainstream parties had been in overestimating its strength which had led them to start imitating its tactics in order to woo disaffected white voters.
Another casualty of the elections was the maverick George Galloway, who became the darling of Britain's Muslim community after he was thrown out of the Labour party for opposing the Iraq invasion. He formed his own Respect party and won the 2005 election from East London defeating a high-profile sitting Labour MP, mostly with the support of the local Bangladeshi community. Post-Iraq, however, his magic evaporated and as many of his former supporters turned against him, he was forced to move to another neighbouring constituency but was defeated. In an ironical twist, his erstwhile seat was won by a young Labour candidate of Bangladeshi descent Rushanara Ali.