When Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed last year to take part in Britain's first-ever televised election debates, which begin next week, the result seemed certain. The fluent and youthful Conservative leader David Cameron, then enjoying a commanding lead in the polls, would easily outperform the dogged prime minister, usually a lackluster speaker.
Now the biggest beneficiary looks likely to be Nick Clegg, the telegenic leader of the Liberal Democrats. His party is a perennial also-ran with just 63 seats in Parliament, less than one 10th the total. But the opportunity to be on prime time and on equal footing with the country's two political heavyweights will be a boon for him and his party. And however he performs, his presence will underscore his growing clout. The decline in Conservative support over the past year--at 37 percent, the Tories are now just 4 points ahead of Labour--means Cameron is unlikely to win the outright majority he needs to form a government, casting Clegg as a possible kingmaker. So far, he has refused to say whether he'll ally with the Conservatives or Labour, only that he'd back the party with the "stronger mandate." Either way, the Lib Dems could become a third party with first-rate access to power.