Three weeks ago, the ascent of the Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats seemed like the relief Britain needed from a tiresome tug-of-war between the Conservative’s David Cameron and the Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. But as the country heads to the polls today, Clegg’s “new politics” seem certain to deliver a version of the old politics.
The results, announced tomorrow, are unlikely to produce any telling consensus about what Britain’s anxious, angry voters really want from their government. The candidates have barely disputed the country’s role in the world and Cameron has so thoroughly modernised the Conservatives’ image that voting Tory today does not say what it once did about one’s idea of Britishness.
Labour trundled into the last week of the election under the slogan Fighting for your Future, which deserves to be remembered not only for its banality but its complete misunderstanding of the candidate’s strengths. The honest Labour slogan would be: The worse things get, the better Gordon looks. Brown’s true accomplishments – judicious management of British foreign policy and a heroic response to the banking crisis – were the results of deft reaction, not feistiness or forward planning.
Britons understand this. Hidden so deep in polls that few media organisations dug them up were numbers showing that Brown has a dominant lead when voters are asked to assess the candidates’ leadership skills. They trust Brown; they just don’t like him.
While the Liberal Democrats’ rise over the past three weeks has introduced new levels of drama and gamesmanship to the race, it has turned the closing days into a sad slog. Clegg’s scrupulous even-handedness – from his mouth, both Tories and Labour turn out to be equally wrong on every issue – has kept intact the useful uncertainty over whether the Lib Dems are a party of the centre-left or centre-right. But it has not made Clegg a particularly effective critic of his opponents. Instead, the campaign season has devolved into one about little other than what is generously called “tactical voting”.
At the same time, Cameron has used the closing days to project a blustery confidence that his victory is inevitable, inviting one of Clegg’s most effective zingers about his opponent’s sense of entitlement. “In this country, you don’t inherit power,” he said the other night in south-west London. “You have to earn it.”
On this terrain, Clegg is an unconvincing naïf. He gets likened to Barack Obama for his charisma, idealism, and easy, worldly smarts. There are also the common themes of civic renewal inflated to messianism: Clegg’s talk of “the sense that our democracy has come alive again,” is Obama’s declaration that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”. But they also share a cynic’s love of repeatedly indicting a political system rigged by entrenched powers, but dismissing as pessimists those who believe what they have to say. Both Clegg’s party and Obama’s movement were shaped by outsiders who had mastered both the nuts and bolts of opportunistic politics and the language necessary to imbue them with noble purpose.
If they have a good Thursday night, the Lib Dem coalition of cynicism and idealism may collapse. On Friday morning, Clegg may have to decide what it really means to fight for somebody else’s future.