Media may be left with Clegg on its face

Nick Clegg’s newfound twin status as political wonder boy and hate figure of the Tory press seems to have made the British Liberal Democrat leader even more popular with the Twittering classes. The second-most popular topic on Twitter right now is “#NickCleggsFault“, mocking the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Spectator for their rabid attacks on the previously-ignored politician.

My current favourite, from a long list, is the last of these three:

@BarneyRonay: In tomorrow’s daily mail: clegg thrashes oap with stick. Drunken clegg vomits on diana memorial. And clegg: my squirrel porn shame

The question is whether voters will like Clegg more because he’s under attack, or like him less because they buy the Mail’s (nonsensical) likening of him to a Nazi, the Telegraph’s assault on his expenses and political donations or the Conservative attempt to take on his policies and character.

Early indications are that the Twitter parody is already having an effect: the Telegraph has been put on the defensive, with Benedict Brogan denying orchestrated efforts by the press to “smear” Clegg. (EDIT: Just come across the Daily Mail-o-matic headline generator, further parodying the paper’s attacks on Clegg by producing random but intelligible Mail-esque Clegg headlines.)

At the very least, the ad hominem attacks must raise his stature. Ken Clarke, Tory former chancellor of the exchequer and now shadow business secretary, wrote in the FT today that Clegg “is a perfectly nice chap but he is not a prime ministerial candidate”. The fact that the Tories have to unleash one of their few remaining Big Beasts to deny that Clegg could be prime minister is extraordinary: even after beating the Tories in some polls, Clegg presumably doesn’t have such delusions of grandeur.

Much of the sudden bounce in the polls must be down to the public finding that actually they rather like Clegg once they see him – for the first time, the televised debate let him make his point directly to a big TV audience, and he did it well. But equally, a 10-point jump cannot be sustainable; he’s bound to slip back, and some of the mud thrown by the Tories will stick.

Any slippage in the polls will be seized on by the media as the bursting of the Clegg bubble (a classic newspaper strategy: build him up, knock him down). But all the Lib Dems need is to take 25% of the vote, well below the 30% they are polling, and they will be back to their 1983 highs (they scored 22% at the last election). That would be a phenomenal outcome for the Lib Dems. Still, some in the party must have fingers and toes crossed in the hope that the bubble lasts to May 6 and the party tops the popular vote; even then, though, the Lib Dems will probably come out third in number of MPs, and Clegg certainly won’t get to be the first Liberal prime minister since David Lloyd George.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.