The very first televised prime ministerial campaign debate in the history of Britain occurred last night.? And a clear winner has emerged in the flash polling – Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.? This will have some big consequences.

Quick lesson in British politics – the Lib Dems are Britain’s third party behind the Tories (Conservatives) and Labour, hovering around 40-60 seats in a parliament that requires over 300 for a majority.? They haven’t always been this far out of power, but after the rise of the Labour Party in the early 20th century, the Lib Dems took a permanent third place.

On policy, ever since I got involved with British politics in 1997 and long before, the Lib Dems have been a sort of conscience party.? They argue (somewhat self-servingly) for a proportional representation system, which would give them more seats.? But they also argue for a more robust foreign policy – their former leader, Paddy Ashdown, was intimately involved in the Bosnia intervention, even governing the place for a period under the Dayton accords.? Lib Dems favor joining the euro and abolishing the pound, they favor more integration with Europe, and more fiscal honesty in government spending.

In short, Lib Dems have had the luxury of making promises that a party which will never be in power can make.? In the aftermath of a broad and far reaching scandal over MP expenses, which puts every member of parliament anywhere near power in a terrible light, the instinct in the electorate to “throw the bums out” benefits a party that has not been in power.? It’s not a “tea party” effect, but the anti-incumbent mood in Britain is at a fever pitch, after 13 years of a Labour government.? Throw in the British tendency to just clean house after a long period of one party rule, and the environment has never been better for the modern Liberal Democrats.

Putting a third party on the same stage as the two main parties instantly raises Clegg’s credibility, as it would do anywhere for any third party.? But as the polls are showing, Clegg didn’t just sit on that.? Nick Clegg took full advantage of all these dynamics in last night’s debate.

Up to now, the Tories were assumed to be likely winners in the coming election in June, with an outside chance of a hung parliament in which the Lib Dems play the coalition partner for either a Labour government or a Tory government.? So what does this mean for the election? Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take – remember, Andrew’s a Tory.

All of this is tactically grim for the Conservatives. If Tory swing voters, disgusted with Labour, nonetheless give the Liberal Democrats a chance, the effect on the marginal seats, where the Tories have been doing well, could be brutal. Cameron’s nightmare is that the LibDems do well enough to enable Labour to get back into office, with a majority of seats but a miserable share of the vote. That nightmare seems closer to reality now than it did yesterday.

Hard to argue with that.? However, I think this could be worse for the Tories than merely losing this election.? If the Lib Dems are actually seen by the electorate, for the long term, as a reasonable alternative governing party, after and because of this debate, it will be at the long term expense of the Tories.? British voters are tired of Labour, true, but big pluralities literally despise the Tories, and see them as nothing more than a hereditarily necessary political party.? If that necessity disappears, because the Liberal Democrats have become a legitimate alternative, the Tories could be knocked into oblivion for a very long time.

Lots of “ifs” there, but let’s remember what just happened – Nick Clegg is judged by voters to have crushed Tory leader David Cameron, and Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, live on national television, in a first for British politics, British media, British journalism, British history itself.

Brits really like that kind of moment-seizing.? A lot.

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