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Kingmaker Clegg helps Conservatives take power in UK as Brown stands down -- an American primer

May 11, 2010 | 12:43 pm

He's been likened to Barack Obama, though perhaps it's easier for Americans to see him as a Ross Perot -- albeit a Ross Perot who not only helped decide the election but who captured a key role in the new government.

He's Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and key to extraordinary political events taking place in the United Kingdom. Here's a handy Ticket analysis of these events, specially tailored for American readers.

Nick Clegg The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will lead Britain tonight in an unprecedented power-sharing deal that will change the balance of British politics.

Conservative leader David Cameron has traveled to Buckingham Palace to be invited by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government as prime minister. Clegg is expected to take the role of deputy prime minister.  Incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown has tendered his resignation, leaving Downing Street for perhaps the last time on a day of political theater not seen in the U.K. for decades.

Cameron at 43 becomes the Queen's 12th prime minister and the first to be younger than the Queen's youngest son, Prince Edward. Clegg is also 43. Cameron vowed to govern "in the national interest."

"I came into politics because I love this country, I think its best days still lie ahead and I believe deeply in public service," he said.

The Conservatives, who did not seal an overall majority in last week's general election, were forced to give up major concessions to the Lib Dems to woo them from doing a deal with the outgoing Labor administration.  These include a more progressive tax curve and, most importantly for the Lib Dems, a referendum on an alternative voting system. 

It is precisely this political dynamic that has allowed Clegg to become kingmaker, and somewhat ruthlessly trade off the two bigger parties against each other to secure his party's support in a voting system that usually downplays the role of the third party.  This is why the Liberal Democrats, which secured 23% of the popular vote and just 57 out of 651 seats, wield a much bigger stick in this election than, say, third-party candidates Perot or John Anderson in previous U.S. elections.  

The Conservatives will seek to distance Britain from the ongoing debt troubles in the euro-zone, and the U.S. is a natural ally. Cameron will be keen to bolster his newly found international reputation by seeking to strengthen the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and U.K., which prospered under previous British Prime Minister Tony Blair but had soured somewhat of late under Brown (but which reached its zenith in the Reagan-Thatcher years). During the campaign, Cameron moved quickly to take the political center -- a move widely criticized within his own party -- and preaches a brand of "compassionate conservativism" he has carefully sought to brand as "change."

Clegg, meanwhile, has been hailed as the British Barack Obama (this theme has played out continually on the campaign trail, with one newspaper painting Clegg in the Obama "change" poster colors, and another painting Cameron in the famous strokes).  Traditional Lib Dem policies such as...

...cutting defense spending do not augur well for U.S.-U.K. relations, but much of the party's lofty ambitions will be tempered by the Conservative hierarchy, which will remain dominant in the coalition.

Clegg now has to sell the deal to his party faithful, and will face criticism that he watered down key demands on electoral reform and settled for a vote on an alternative-vote system rather than the full-blown proportional representation, which would have given the Lib Dems an even firmer foothold in British politics as the third largest party.

Cameron, meanwhile, will face a backlash from some MPs over giving away a cornerstone of Conservative Party politics, the "first-past-the-post" electoral system. Cameron has promised the Lib Dems a "three-line whip" vote on the alternative-vote system, meaning Conservative MPs are compelled by the party's top brass to vote for the system.

It remains to be seen how key elements of the power-sharing deal will play out, including the Lib Dems' stated goals of nuclear disarmament and a ramping up of banking regulation.  Any deal announcement is likely to be short in actual policy details and the majority government will remain fragile. The Lib Dems have never before struck a deal to govern with the Conservatives and are seen as a more natural ally with Labor.

Negotiations with Labor ended earlier today, sealing Brown's downfall.     

On the steps of Downing Street, flanked by his wife, Sarah, and their two children, Brown said: "I've informed the queen's private secretary it is my intention to tender my resignation to the queen ...  Only those who have held the office of prime minister can understand the full weight of its responsibilities ... Above all, it was a privilege to serve."

Brown succeeded Blair as prime minister after a decade as treasury chief and likely will pursue a career in academia. As Britain prepares for life under the Conservative leader for the first time in 13 years, the wounded Labor Party now gears up for its own leadership contest.

-- Craig Howie

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Photo: Nick Clegg. Credit: EPA.