Clegg steps out of Cable’s shadow

April 19, 2010

BRITAIN-ELECTION/Nick Clegg’s assured performance in last week’s leaders’ debate has helped him step out from the shadow of Vince Cable, so much so that he did not even need his finance spokesman during a trip to Cardiff on Monday.

The Liberal Democrats, so reliant on Cable’s well-publicised economic acumen during the past two years, has used him alongside Clegg for much of the campaign.

But despite being scheduled to attend together, Clegg took his recently found wow factor to the Welsh capital on his own.

It was put down to a logistical problem by the party’s press machine, but as their candidate for Cardiff Central said — they always knew they had a good potential finance minister, now they know they have a potential prime minister.

The LibDems are enjoying a level of popularity not seen since men wore top hats, thanks to Clegg’s confident performance against the ruling Labour party’s Gordon Brown and the Conservative leader David Cameron in Britain’s first TV debate.

I went to see the man of the moment, first in a presentation of its green policies and then in a Q&A session with students at Cardiff University.

What was notable was Clegg’s directness, in his use of non-political vocabulary.

He used words like “potty” to describe the British electoral system where a party can win an election despite attracting fewer votes than the other two main parties.

His “blood boiled” to see banks failing to lend to businesses after reaping the benefits of taxpayer bailouts.

And he would not apologise for his privileged schooling, saying he would “not airbrush” that part out of his life.

At the same time he described as “bilge” a student’s claim he had failed to list on his CV work he had done for a research company on behalf of Libya’s leader in the early 90s.

“It is not a state secret,” he said. It would be “ridiculous” to apologise for something somebody may have done 20 years ago, he added.

His comments went down well, and despite wearing a suit, tie and cufflinks in a blackened student union bar with its sticky floor and lingering smell of beer, he appeared casual.

Many attending were converts already, but some were persuaded to switch to the LibDems from Labour or the Welsh national party Plaid Cymru based on his TV appearance or showing at the union.

“He was very similar – he came across as very genuine on both TV and here,” said Alexandra Lausen, a 21-year-old modern history and politics student.

“I think I was convinced before, but this has clarified it in my mind.”

“Personable…and willing to answer any question,” were other positive comments.

Harriet Taylor, 18, economics student, did not attend the Q&A, but saw Clegg in the TV debate, and despite coming from the Conservative heartland of Surrey, said she was impressed by the LibDem leader.

“I thought David Cameron was arrogant, and Gordon Brown just agreed with Nick Clegg, who had some good answers. He was right about Labour and the Conservatives just swapping power for a long time.”

Michael Huntingdon, 19, an economics student, had yet to be convinced about the LibDem’s policies regarding Trident and Europe, and Chris Williams, 18, the politics student who challenged Clegg on his time as a researcher, said the leader failed to differentiate himself from Cameron – another former public schoolboy.

“Before the TV debate I thought about voting Labour, and then after it, I thought I would vote LibDem, but now I’m undecided,” he said.

Clegg has made an effort to appeal to first-time voters to vote, and was encouraged that those attending the Q&A had all registered.

But he told Reuters: “Unfortunately, it’s not wholly typical. There are lots and lots of young people who are still not registered. They have a day-and-a-half  to do it. They can have a huge impact on this election. They could really make it their own.”

But Cable has not been completely sidelined, as economics student Grace Boardman’s comment showed.

“I think I will vote LibDem because of Vince Cable – he got it right on the economy,” the 20-year-old said.

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