Nick Clegg: Britain's kingmaker despite poll letdown

7th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

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 kingmaker.

Clegg's confident performance in three TV debates opposite Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron thrust his third party into second place in opinion polls and electrified the race.

At the height of "Cleggmania", the 43-year-old was named the most popular British party leader since Winston Churchill and was compared to US President Barack Obama for his message of change.

It was a marked change from the past -- a BBC poll in September found 36 percent of voters had never heard of Clegg.

But it did not last, and soon after polls closed in Thursday's election it became clear the Lib Dems had made little progress and would even lose seats.

However, as the results confirmed the Conservatives won the biggest share of seats but not the majority they need to form a government, the Lib Dems have found themselves in the middle of a flurry of deal-making.

Brown's Labour Party began to court them with an eye to staying in power with their support, but Clegg said he believed the Tories should be the first to try to form a government.

Clegg was elected Lib Dem leader in December 2007, just two years after he first entered parliament as lawmaker for Sheffield Hallam in northern England, and has always been ambitious.

He made a name for himself early on with his strong defence of civil liberties and by breaking a parliamentary taboo by openly criticising the war in Afghanistan.

His fervent support of the European Union and the euro and his international background has singled him out among British politicians, but his privileged past has also drawn comparisons with the Eton-educated Cameron.

Nicholas William Peter Clegg was born on January 7, 1967, and brought up in the affluent village of Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, with two brothers and a sister.

His family history is exotic -- his mother is Dutch, having been born in Indonesia and held in a Japanese internment camp before she came to Britain aged 12, while his wealthy banker father is half-Russian.

His wife Miriam is a Spanish commercial lawyer. They married in 2000 and their children -- Antonio, Alberto and Miguel -- are all bilingual. Clegg himself speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish.

Clegg's internationalism prompted the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper to question his Englishness and, citing a 2002 essay in which he said Britain had a "tenacious obsession" with World War II, to accuse him of being unpatriotic.

Clegg attended London's elite Westminster school alongside a young Helena Bonham Carter, the future Hollywood star.

He got into trouble as a 16-year-old there when he got drunk and set fire to a collection of rare cacti on a school trip to Munich.

He went on to study social anthropology at Cambridge University, where he starred in a play directed by future Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, who remains a friend.

He completed his education at the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Bruges, where he met his future wife, the "love of his life".

Before that, Clegg enjoyed the single life -- he told GQ magazine in a now notorious 2008 interview that he had slept with "no more than 30" women, earning him the nickname "Nick Clegg-over".

Clegg was briefly a journalist and a political consultant before joining the European Commission where he worked for five years, including as senior aide to Commission vice president Leon Brittan, a Conservative.

He subsequently stood as a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament in 1999, a job he held until 2004.

At that point, finding the travelling too much for his young family, Clegg stood down and returned to England where he worked as a lecturer and a part-time lobbyist before joining parliament in 2005.

© 2010 AFP

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