On the heels of the first televised election debate in British history, the country seems to have become totally enamored with Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party. While the LibDems traditionally languish in a distant third behind the Labour and Conservative parties, Clegg's spectacular debate performance ignited a surge that has pushed his party past Labour and into a statistical tie with David Cameron's Conservatives (some polls show a slim Conservative lead, others a slim LibDem lead).
Obviously, many U.S. conservatives were looking forward to what was once thought to be a near-certain victory for Cameron -- ending 13 years of Labour governance and handing the country back to the party of Margaret Thatcher. But the electoral reality in Britain being what it is, it's important to consider Clegg seriously.
Despite reports to the contrary, Clegg is no "centrist." His party is rooted in market liberalism and continues to pay lip-service to classical liberal economics, but in many areas (especially foreign policy) they are actually well left of Labour. As Nile Gardiner points out, Clegg does not believe in a "special relationship" with the U.S., and also rejects the "default Atlanticism" of NATO. In addtion, he would scrap most of Britain's nuclear arsenal, and Clegg so anti-Israel that he has advocated economic sanctions against the Jewish state.
At the moment, it seems unlikely that Clegg will actually win power, as most models now predict that Labour will win the most seats despite coming third in the popular vote (due to the geographic distribution of votes in a first-past-the-post system). Such a result would likely produce an unwieldy Labour-LibDem coalition headed by Gordon Brown. This would be a disastrous result both in terms of policy and in terms of public reaction, as Brown will stay in power despite being roundly defeated by both Clegg and David Cameron. However, those predictions are based on "uniform swing" models, which assumes that any changes in vote share are distributed equally across the country (to understand, play with this election seat calculator from the BBC). So, the models could be very far off, especially with the country apparently going through a political realignment. Also, if Clegg continues to win debates, his poll numbers could continue to rise dramatically and sweep him into 10 Downing Street.
Obviously, this seems be a huge blow to the Conservative Party, but before we get too panicked, there may be a small silver lining. Assuming that Cameron loses, Britain will be stuck with either an unstable Brown-led coalition or an unstable Clegg-led coalition (my money is on Clegg) - meaning that Britain could be back at the polls in a snap election before the next term expires. Furthermore, Clegg is likely to live up to his billing as "the British Obama" by driving the country off a left-wing cliff and horrifying voters that failed to read his policies carefully. Under such a scenario (or under an illegitimate Brown coalition), both the LibDems and Labour will lose credibility after governing together, thus sending the electorate into the waiting arms of the Conservatives. Furthermore, as the moderate Cameron would likely resign the party leadership after a humiliating defeat, the Conservatives are likely to be under more conservative leadership by the next election (as Cameron takes a lot of heat for running so far to the center as to blur the lines between parties).