Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was tipped as a rising star from his first day in parliament, and his resounding victory in Britain’s first live pre-election TV debate shows he has finally arrived.
He saw off both Prime Minister Gordon Brown, of the ruling Labour Party, and Conservative leader David Cameron in the 90-minute US-style televised showdown on Thursday, with polls and the press judging him the winner.
It may now be Clegg’s moment, with a tight election race setting him up as a potential kingmaker.
Despite the limitations inherent in leading the third largest party in a two-party system, the 43-year-old Clegg has ambitiously pushed forward the centrist Lib Dems since taking the reins in December 2007.
He made a name for himself with his strong defense of civil liberties and by breaking political taboos last year by first criticizing the Afghanistan war and then calling for the speaker of parliament to resign over an expenses row.
Clegg has nevertheless struggled to get the Lib Dems heard above the Labour and Conservative parties, and a BBC poll in September found 36 percent of voters had never heard of him.
But as the race between the two main parties tightens ahead of an election expected on May 6, it looks likely that neither will win enough seats to form a government and will have to call on the Lib Dems’ support.
Clegg did not start out in politics. After studying social anthropology at Cambridge university, he worked as a journalist, a political consultant and then at the European Commission for five years.
This included time as a senior aide to Commission vice president Leon Brittan, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to join the Conservatives.
Clegg instead went on to become 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, working as a part-time lecturer before entering the British parliament as lawmaker for Sheffield Hallam in northern England in 2005.
Clegg maintained his pro-European views — he believes Britain should move closer to Brussels and drop its “limpet-like allegiance” to Washington — which reflected his cosmopolitan family life.
His mother is Dutch, having been born in Indonesia and held in a Japanese internment camp before she came to Britain aged 12, and his father is half-Russian.
In 2000, Clegg married a Spanish woman, commercial lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez. Their children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel, are all bilingual, and Clegg himself speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish.
Nicholas William Peter Clegg was born on January 7, 1967, and grew up in Oxfordshire, west of London, with two brothers and a sister.
He attended London’s elite Westminster school, and it was there he got into trouble as a 16-year-old while on an exchange to Munich, Germany.
He and a friend set fire to a collection of rare cacti belonging to a local academic and were ordered to carry out community service. Clegg has since said it was a “drunken prank” of which he is “not proud.”
Clegg went on to study at Cambridge before taking a year off to become a self-confessed “ski bum.” He is also a keen mountaineer.
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.”
The Lib Dems are the latest incarnation of Britain’s liberal tradition, squeezed out by the creation of the Labour party and has not held power since 1922.
Clegg is in the liberal economic wing of his party and has sought to stress the Lib Dems as financially responsible, promising no “shopping list manifestos” that a post-recession Britain cannot afford.
His cause has been helped by his finance spokesman Vince Cable, who became popular during the economic crisis for his straight-talking views — so much so that Labour has reportedly been in talks to bring him into government.
If that happens, Clegg could find himself squeezed out once again.
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