How Nick Clegg can become even more popular

By Symon Hill
April 18, 2010

“Cleggmania” is the dominant theme in the Sunday papers. “Nick Clegg almost as popular as Churchill” declares the front page of the Sunday Telegraph. The Mail on Sunday proclaims "LibDems in front for the first time in 104 years". I would hardly have been surprised to find a headline asking “Is Nick Clegg the Messiah?”.

I'm pleased that Clegg's rise in popularity has reminded politicians and commentators that elections are not always predictable and that politics can be changed. But there is also a danger that we overlook the reality that there are a number of areas in which Clegg agrees with Labour and the Conservatives.

The paper that is usually the most sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats, the Independent on Sunday today ran a front page story critical of all three main party leaders. With the headline “Don't mention the war”, it attacked Clegg, Brown and Cameron for avoiding the issue of Afghanistan – while revealing that 77 per cent of voters support the imminent withdrawal of troops.

The discussion of Afghanistan was by far Clegg's weakest point in the Leaders' Debate. He failed to challenge Brown's feeble and unoriginal justification for the war, and simply echoed Cameron's call for more helicopters. But extra helicopters do not make futile and immoral wars worthwhile or fair.

In this week's Leaders' Debate – which will focus on foreign policy - Clegg will be under huge pressure to live up to his new-found reputation. Last week, he articulately attacked the renewal of Trident. Today's poll makes clear that he would have the majority of the public on his side if he spoke out as clearly against the war in Afghanistan.

To build on the “Cleggmania” momentum, the Liberal Democrat leader really needs to say something new and unexpected on Thursday. The foreign policy theme provides him with the perfect opportunity to throw Cameron and Brown off-balance by articulating a popular, realistic and well-argued policy in favour of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Has he got the courage to do it?

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