Last night saw LBC host the first of two debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage over the UK’s membership of the EU.
Throughout the debate Clegg made a strong case for Britain’s continued role in the EU, arguing if we cut ourselves off from Europe, the UK’s hard-won economic gains would be reversed. For the Deputy PM, ‘we are better off in Europe, for jobs, for clout in the world, and for Britain’.
Countering this, Farage quipped that ‘any debate over the EU is between a tired status quo and not being governed by Europe’. He painted the EU as a club the UK was voting to join, with a price tag of £55 million a day and an open border to 485 million Europeans.
According to the YouGov poll for LBC/The Sun, Farage won the showdown, scoring 57% to Clegg’s 36%. But for me, Clegg edged it. He was simply more credible and better on the details. He emphasised the importance of basing the debate on facts, and his frequent rebuttals to Farage’s statistics gave the impression that Ukip had plucked its figures – such as the claim that 75% of the UK’s laws come from the EU – from thin air. By the end, Farage seemed flustered and his well-rehearsed jokes were falling flat.
Clegg and Farage’s exchanges contributed little to the discourse over Europe, and it seems unlikely either will have won many converts. But for both, the debate will be considered a PR success. Clegg has rarely polled 36% for anything since 2010. Moreover, the debate gave him a soapbox to appeal to voters for the European Parliament elections in May and promote the Lib Dems as the only party committed to Britain’s EU membership. Meanwhile, Farage transmogrified into a legitimate politician at the vanguard of Euroscepticism.
But let’s put this in perspective. We are not yet witnessing the dawn of four party politics – neither Farage nor Clegg are ever going to lead this country. Although Ukip are a force to be reckoned with, and they can no longer just be dismissed as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’.
Party strategists of all colours will have been watching the debate with interest, and rightly so. With the Conservatives closing the polling gap on Labour, next year’s general election looks set to be exceptionally tight. A failure to engage with Ukip sympathisers doesn’t simply risk swelling the ranks of disciples worshipping at the altar of Farage’s European dogma, it could be the difference between victory or defeat. So, Ed and Dave, take note.