How Nick Clegg must dream of those heady days in 2010 when, for a brief time, the Lib Dems were polling first, #iagreewithnick was trending on Twitter and his plea for people to dispose of Westminster’s ‘Punch and Judy politics’ presented him as a genuine alternative to Labour and the Tories. Clegg’s offer of two debates on EU membership with UKIP leader Nigel Farage was gleefully accepted. With memories of his last experiences in debate surely in mind, Clegg must have hoped to breathe some life into the failing Lib Dem party and its staunchly pro-European cause. This time, however, the tables turned, and Clegg found himself painted as a ‘career politician’ like Miliband and Cameron, whose opinions are ‘virtually inseparable’ on the issue of Europe, eliciting approving applause from a majority of the audience.
Clegg’s years spent in EU institutions gave him a slice of the credibility he has often desperately lacked and was able to go toe-to-toe and fight his corner. Farage explained how leaving the EU would retrieve power from Brussels, save us billions and slash immigration. Claims that 75% of the UK’s laws are created by the EU, that we hand over £55 million (net) per day to the EU and that we need to build a city the size of Manchester in order to withstand the expected influx of European immigrants from were contested immediately after the debate by analysts on every network.
Studies and statistics quoted by one were unfailingly met by incredulous chuckles and outbursts from the other. Clegg expressed a desire to get ‘what’s best for Britain and deliver real economic clout’. This was met with muted approval from the studio audience, compared to Farage’s bombastic call for Britain to break free from its European shackles and trade on a global scale, repeatedly pointing to the promised lands of the Commonwealth: the booming industry in India, Australia and New Zealand. This was seized upon by Clegg as indicative of UKIP’s outdated opinions. Other easy points were scored by Clegg for attacking Farage’s ‘indefensible’ description of Putin’s diplomacy as ‘admirable’ and of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s ‘democratically elected president’. More than once he forced the UKIP leader into a rare moment of obvious discomfort by pushing for an answer on his views of gay marriage.
The loudest and longest ripples of applause, however, were reserved for Farage’s accusation that Clegg was ‘wilfully lying’ to the British people over the extent of the EU’s power. Farage also drew approval for his attack on immigration, remarking that the Tories support the EU to pander to the ‘super rich’, who benefit from ‘cheaper nannies and cleaners’. Although his following claim that the ‘white working class are becoming an underclass’ earned significantly less applause, Farage’s populist sentiments garnered clear support from the audience.
Going head to head for over two hours of debate on a subject which has defined much of both debaters’ careers should have resulted in a close match – however, according to most of the polls, Farage was the clear winner. In the first debate 57%, thought Farage performed better – in the second, that number rose to a whopping 68 per cent. Clegg did manage to eke out a marginal victory in the Twittersphere, according to a tendentious Twitter poll that gave him the edge over Farage with 31.4 per cent to 30.8 per cent.
What was merely suspected before the debates is now fact: Farage’s UKIP is, in fact, a viable political party. Given the amount of media coverage, major donations, and defections from ex-Tories, compounded by constantly improving poll results over the last 18 months, the party may actually fare reasonably well in the upcoming elections – a frightening prospect.
Still, Clegg is to be admired for rising to his own challenge. With the Lib Dems and UKIP constantly swapping third and fourth place in the polls, Nick Clegg has forged a narrative for his party to stick to next year. With Cameron evasive and Miliband vague on Europe, the Lib Dems can now hold legitimate hopes, however delicate, of attracting pro-EU voters. Despite the results, Nick Clegg did at times manage to expose the nastier side of Farage and UKIP and did this by challenging him to a debate in which it is easy to imagine Miliband or Cameron faring far worse.