By Matt Frei, The
Since the 1980s,
Those lessons are being reinforced by a posse of American campaign veterans. Anita Dunn, former communications director for Obama's White House, is helping the Conservatives spit-polish their message. The Labour Party has recruited Joel Benenson, Obama's lead campaign pollster, as well as Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who apparently specializes in "loosening up" politicians. (Our incumbent prime minister, Labor's Gordon "bigoted woman" Brown, could no doubt benefit from his magic.)
So as our election on Thursday approaches, it's no surprise that commentators on both sides of the
Margaret Thatcher admired the stamina of
The increasingly presidential style of British parliamentary elections is in large part a legacy of American darling Tony Blair, the former prime minister who frequently appealed directly to the electorate at large, over the heads of his skeptical Labour Party. He paid the price when he was ushered to the exit in favor of Brown, who now is desperately clinging to the keys of 10 Downing Street — especially after his on-mike, off-camera comment calling a constituent "bigoted," a gaffe that highlighted the chasm between the prime minister's public schmoozing and his private grumpiness.
Much as in America, incumbency in Britain has become a ball and chain that candidates drag around on the campaign trail, which is why this year's battle of "hope and change" vs. "grizzled experience in a time of crisis" should seem familiar. The Labour Party has been in power for 13 years, and voters want to know why in all that time it has failed to act on many of the impassioned promises it is making once again. Last year's agonizing parliamentary expenses scandal — in which lawmakers were found to have billed the public for everything from moat-cleaning to ornamental ducks — has become a symbol of abuse and arrogance, and Britons' dim view of their elected representatives and their institutions rivals Americans' low esteem for Congress.
The first-ever prime ministerial television debates are perhaps the most obvious symbol of the Americanization of our campaigns. The first one, on April 15, was heralded by a front-page picture in the London Times of Richard Nixon debating John Kennedy in 1960, signaling that British elections were finally and truly entering the television age. Live-streaming on the Internet was accompanied by televised focus groups of Britons wired to machines that recorded every reaction to every word, noting every wince with the precision of an EKG. The debates, governed by 76 separate rules, were more choreographed than a medieval step dance, and the candidates rehearsed them to death. That, too, should feel familiar to American audiences.
As it turned out, television ended up trumping all the gadgets of social media. This was gladiatorial television at its best, not least because it created the campaign's biggest surprise: "Cleggmania."
Emerging from a distant third place in the polls, the 43-year-old Clegg wowed the unsuspecting public in the first debate, a forum that granted him equal billing and airtime. While the two major-party candidates glowered at each other, Clegg was the first to look straight into camera and address the millions of people watching at home: "Don't let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years now — making the same old promises, breaking the same old promises." Cameron must have been kicking himself. It was his idea to include Clegg.
Cameron recovered a bit in the subsequent debates. The consensus scorecard for the final set-to on Thursday had Cameron the winner, Clegg a close second and Brown — the biggest loser in the Clegg boomlet — a distant third.
Clegg, whose wife is a Spanish lawyer and whose sons are named Alberto, Antonio and Miguel, is half-Dutch and wholly wedded to the concept of a more unified Europe, in which Britain plays a leading role rather than orbiting as a subversive moon. His special relationship would probably be with
And that is why an election that should have been the Tories' to lose has become a three-horse race. The polls consistently predict what is charmingly called a hung Parliament — that is, no party wins an overall majority, and an informal pact or a formal coalition may have to be formed in order to govern. The markets don't like it. The pound wobbles at the mere thought of it.
Despite Clegg's growing popularity — at the moment he is narrowly behind Cameron in the polls — the British electoral system makes it virtually impossible for his party to dominate. But the likely horse-trading would hoist Clegg into the position of kingmaker. He has already stated his price: electoral reform that allows his party to win a number of parliamentary seats more reflective of its popularity in the polls.
If that happens, the duopoly of British politics will be history, and coalition governments will become as normal as they are in
Matt Frei is the anchor of "