One of the most difficult tests in the life of a British politician is the summons to appear on Jeremy Paxman's "Newsnight" program on the BBC. Paxman, the grand inquisitor of British journalism, has been known to make even seasoned politicians squirm in their seats with his hard-hitting questions. If he feels that an interviewee is being evasive, he repeats his question -- a dozen times, if necessary. He makes it clear that he is not satisfied with their answer and just gives up on them with contempt.
A Paxman interview in the middle of an election campaign is considered so risky that Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, 59, initially turned down the invitation. His Conservative challenger David Cameron, 43, also backed down. Both men believed that they could afford to snub Paxman, but they were wrong.
As it turned out, Nick Clegg, 43, the boyish leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Britain's third party, fearlessly entered the ring with Paxman. He withstood everything Paxman threw his way for a full 30 minutes, and came off looking good in the process: telegenic, relaxed and quick-witted. Compared with the dour Brown and the sometimes supercilious Cameron, Clegg made a profoundly refreshing impression.
The interview, which aired two weeks ago, was Clegg's first sensational success, and it bolstered him and his fans. Several other interviews and two 90-minute television debates later, Clegg has risen to the level of political superstar.
The rise of the election's third man could bring fundamental change to British politics. A historic shift seems on the verge of taking place, and some are even predicting a crisis for the country's unwritten constitution.
Until recently, Clegg's nickname "Nick Who?" reflected the fact that few voters even knew who he was. But now he is already being compared to US President Barack Obama, due to Clegg's magical gift for connecting with voters when he appears on television. According to the astonishing results of a poll taken after his first TV debate, Clegg received the highest approval ratings for a party leader since 1945, when then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill was basking in Britain's victory over Hitler.
The Tories' strategists, who were until recently confident of victory, are frantic. After 13 years in power, the Labour Party is finished, and its prime minister, Gordon Brown, is washed-up and unpopular. And now, ironically, the center-left Liberal Democrats, a party that for decades has carved out an unfortunate existence as a third party in a two-party system, could thwart an election win for Cameron. The British majority voting system has always made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats, because elections are not decided by a party's share of the total vote, but exclusively by the number of constituencies won in a "first past the post" system.
This can be cruel. In 2005, the Liberal Democrats captured more than 22 percent of the popular vote nationwide, but had to make do with only about 10 percent of seats in parliament.
Coalitions are uncommon in Westminster, at least in times of peace. As a result, the natural fate of the Lib Dems has been to remain permanently powerless and marginalized.
Until now, that is.
As recently as early April, London bookmaker William Hill considered the possibility of Clegg's party achieving a majority in parliament about as likely as a sighting of the Loch Ness monster. Clegg's prospects didn't exactly improve when he revealed that he had slept with "no more than 30 women" in his life.
But now that Clegg has hypnotized voters in front of their TV sets, some polls are already putting his party in first place, with about 33 percent of the vote, with the Tories following close behind and Brown's Labour Party bringing up the rear. All polls agree on the fact that a small British party has never made it this far this quickly. Since the surprising poll results emerged, the conservative Rupert Murdoch press, which includes the tabloid The Sun and the center-right The Times of London, has done its best to paint an unfavorable picture of the nation's new darling, but without success. Millions of Britons are in love.
So far, efforts by certain newspapers to change that fact have achieved little. The Sun published what it said were notes written to Clegg that had allegedly been found in a taxi. According to the paper, the notes contained hand-written instructions from an adviser on how to behave in the first TV debate. Clegg is apparently advised that he needs "more passion/conviction" and is told to "speak more slowly" and "look more relaxed." Attempts to force Clegg on to the defensive over expenses he claimed as a member of parliament also had little effect.