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18 April 2010

Election broken open by Clegg-mania

Labour will benefit, but there is no room for complacency.

By James Macintyre

It’s real, this Clegg-mania. Speak to ordinary people and they have picked up on it. Perhaps, like so much in British politics, it has been encouraged by a consensus among media people after a new story. But even if that’s the case, it’s penetrated through, as shown by today’s Mail on Sunday poll putting the Liberal Democrats ahead for the first time in decades, on 32 points to the Tories’ 31 and Labour’s 28.

One health warning, though: the headline in the Sunday Times — declaring Nick Clegg the most popular politician since Winston Churchill — is, in the words of one journalist colleague, “the most ridiculous ridiculous headline since the Second World War”.

Of course, Clegg “won” the first TV debate last week. But the harsh reality for the Lib Dems is that the real story about their surge in support is how it will play out for the other two main parties. David Cameron is the loser from the debate, and not just because of his performance, the failure of which is probably as exaggerated as are the accounts of Clegg’s success.

The real threat to the Tories comes from the fact that the Conservatives need to win certain — maybe 20 or 30 — key marginals from the Lib Dems, and in the current mood that just will not happen.

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So, on the face of it, the Lib Dem surge is good for the Labour Party and Gordon Brown, who notably refused to rule out a coalition this morning. But the danger for Brown is that he has missed the boat when it comes to offering the Lib Dems concessions.

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Viewers will have noted the way in which he nakedly flirted with Clegg on Thursday, portraying the parties as having similar values. But the question inside Labour must be: is it too little, too late?