LONDON: The leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was brought down by the compromises he had to make in a bruising five years as junior coalition partner in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
The 48-year-old retained his own seat in the general election but stepped down on Friday after a dismal night in which the party looked on course to retain just eight of its 57 seats in the House of Commons.
Positioned on the right of his centrist party, Clegg said his decision to join the Conservatives in government in 2010 was a responsible move to provide stability as Britain struggled with the fall-out from the global financial crisis.
He argued that the Liberal Democrats have taken the edge off Cameron’s austerity measures, including by raising the threshold at which the lowest paid workers pay income tax.
But supporters on the left of his party never forgave him for backing cuts to public services that seemed to sacrifice many of the party’s ideals.
Crucially, Clegg reneged on a key election pledge not to raise university tuition fees.
And he failed to secure reforms of the voting system and the House of Lords which have long been core Lib Dem goals.
The implosion of his party and his humiliation in the eyes of voters mark an eye-opening turnaround from the last election in 2010 when his strong performance in televised debates sparked a wave of support dubbed “Cleggmania”.
Clegg had previously been unknown to many voters but he emerged as a fresh face in a political landscape long dominated by the Conservatives and Labour.
He also stood out as a rare voice in favour of the European Union and immigration — a stance rooted in his cosmopolitan background.
Born to a half-Russian merchant banker father and a Dutch mother, he speaks English, Dutch, French, Spanish and German.
He is married to a high-flying Spanish lawyer, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, with whom he has three young sons.
Like most of the ministers in the outgoing government, Clegg was educated at private school, and went on to study first at Cambridge University and in the United States and Belgium.
But unlike most British politicians he began his political career in Brussels, working in the European Commission from 1994 and later advising Britain’s trade commissioner Leon Brittan, a former Conservative minister.
Clegg was elected a member of the European Parliament in 1999 and to the House of Commons in 2005, becoming his party’s leader two years later.
Despite all the hype ahead of the 2010 vote, the Lib Dems did not win as many seats as they hoped.
But Cameron’s failure to win a majority handed Clegg the role of kingmaker, and the two men formed Britain’s first coalition government since World War II.
This gave the smaller party, long the recipient of anti-war, anti-establishment protest votes, their first taste of power.
In a chummy press conference in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, Clegg and Cameron proclaimed “a new kind of government” and vowed to end adversarial politics.
But while the two men — who share similar privileged backgrounds and a love of tennis — got along better than expected, voters soon turned on Clegg and his party.
The broken pledge on tuition fees was most damaging of all, as the coalition did not lower but raise them, sparking a wave of sometimes violent protests by students in London.
Clegg apologized in 2012 but the footage was swiftly remixed into a YouTube parody song and went viral, only reducing his credibility further.