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How Nick Clegg's Eyebrows Could Save the Liberal Democrats

30/04/2015 22:20 BST | Updated 30/06/2015 10:59 BST

Nick Clegg faces a virtual mission impossible in this general election campaign - but if anything can save him and his party from electoral oblivion, it's his eyebrows.

That's right. His eyebrows. They're the key to understanding why, despite being a figure of derision, the deputy prime minister's communication skills remain some of the most polished out there.

Clegg uses his eyebrows better than any of the other party leaders when he wants to use emphasis to make a point. Raising the eyebrows is a very primitive gesture indicating interest in a particular fact or statement. And Clegg always has a slightly raised eyebrow look which opens his face up.

Compare him to David Cameron, whose face is so tense he can barely muster a convincing smile. The prime minister always seems quite severe, whereas Clegg is more open facially and appears more likable as a result. It might sound ridiculous, but this is exactly the sort of detail which makes a big difference.

Clegg is going to have to make the most of his communication skills in this campaign because his party is - to state the obvious - in a little trouble. The coalition had to pick up an ailing economy and do what they thought were best. Since then the Conservatives have taken all the credit and the Liberal Democrats all the blame. That means the Lib Dem leader is going to have a tough time persuading people he has credible policies that we believe can be implemented. He needs to find ways of connecting with voters as he did in 2010.

But there are two Cleggs: one who delivers very classy podium speeches and is comfortable on camera, and the other who has become less vibrant and blander after years of being in power. If people can get past their animosity over all the broken promises, they would probably agree.

To see the man behind the reputation you have to divorce how he's viewed from his actual performances as a political communicator. Just look at how Clegg did in the TV debates in 2010. He electrified the campaign because he was so polished. These were presentation skills 101: look into the camera, smile, emphasise your key points. He did all that beautifully, and has kept on doing that since.

The Liberal Democrat leader is at his best giving party conference speeches, when he uses his communication skills as effectively as Tony Blair ever did. He chats off the cuff, talking like a regular Joe. He makes people laugh. He riffs like a comedian. Clegg's open-arm gestures are relaxed, his gaze is up.

One glance at his rhythm and energy and you'll soon see how free and fluent he is. Really charismatic people have a big range of emphasis. They can play with the music in their voice, control their facial expressions and by so doing quickly switch from something serious to light repartee with the audience. Clegg can do all this easily.

So why's he so unpopular? The problem is it's just got a little bit predictable. Whenever you see Clegg he's doing the same behavioural shtick he's been up to for five years.

Instead of offering hope, he's using these skills to defend the coalition. And no-one likes that. He can say 'I did what's best for the country', but how do you trust someone who's not done what they pledged to do? That has put him permanently on the back foot which is bad news for his style. When he's on the defensive, he becomes a little plugged in, like a political robot.

Being so incredibly polished - or oiled, to continue the robot analogy - has worked well for him in the past, but it's now become a negative because people feel he's too slick. So Clegg can afford to let himself go a little bit. He needs more of what he does at his party conferences when he allows the veil to lift and lets himself become a bit more vulnerable and rough around the edges.

Clegg's very polished, but these days he seems slightly overcoached. It's what has made him slowly turn from exciting to bland. So he needs to find the energy he showed in 2010. He must get away from being the government man and become the outsider again. Not an easy trick to pull off, granted. But when he talks passionately about the issues, and is really plugged into what he truly believes in, he is really very good.