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Leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats Key to New Government

  • Jennifer Glasse

Britain's election turned into high political drama Friday, with the Conservatives and Labor Party wooing a potential ally: Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Here is a profile of the potential kingmaker.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg emerged as the star of Britain's election campaign, and while his popularity failed to translate into seats in parliament, he still held power Friday as determining who will next lead Britain.

Though he has led the Liberal Democrats since 2007 and has been a member of the British Parliament for five years, political scientist Helen Margetts from the University of Oxford says it is hard to tell whether he is a good leader.

"I don't think we know very much about that yet because he hasn't been a very prominent figure in British politics until the last six weeks," said Helen Margetts.

Clegg emerged into prominence in Britain's first leadership debates. The 43-year-old was named the most popular British party leader since Winston Churchill and was compared to U.S. President Barack Obama for his message of change.

"If we do things differently, we can build a better, a fairer Britain," said Nick Clegg.

Margetts said that so-called Cleggmania came out of a combination of factors.

"You might say it's a combination of Nick Clegg and the televised debates," she said. "The televised debates do seem to have had a big impact in this election and it was his performance in that that really made the difference."

After Clegg's debate performance, his Liberal Democrat party experienced a surge in opinion polls. Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University says that came as a surprise.

"He's only been on the national stage for a little while and to be honest, until this election campaign, until the debates, very few people took him very seriously," said Steven Fielding.

The Liberal Democrats won only 57 of the 650 seats contested, far fewer than the party had hoped. Fielding says voters may have been reluctant because Clegg is such an unknown quantity.

"His strengths are yet to be seen because he hasn't been tested," he said. "Being leader of the Liberal Democrats is not the easiest job in British politics, but it's not the hardest."

His party's showing puts Clegg in a position of power, as each of the two larger parties, Conservative and Labor needs his party to get a majority in Parliament. Fielding says this is a challenge.

"This is the biggest test that any politician in British politics will ever get I suspect," said Fielding.

Margetts says Clegg's time as a member of the European Parliament will come in handy.

"He does have experience in this kind of politics and most British politicians don't, whereas he worked in Europe many years and has experience of coalition politics," said Margetts.

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats would like to see Britain's voting system reformed to a more direct representational system. Fielding says that is what Clegg will want from Conservative leader David Cameron or Labor incumbent Gordon Brown.

"There will be a lot of liberal democrats who say if he doesn't come out of these negotiations without a firm commitment to electoral reform, the kind of electoral reform that the Liberals, before they became the Liberal Democrats have been talking about since the 1920s, if they don't come out of these negotiations without a firm commitment from either David Cameron or Gordon Brown, then Nick Clegg will have failed," he said.

The political horse trading has begun with both parties making overtures to Clegg. He is meeting with the Conservatives first because they won the most seats. Clegg says the Conservatives need to show they can form a government that will govern in the national interest.