The Farage balloon was in full flight last night in the LBC debate, full of hot air and poisonous gases. Apparently, 485 million people are poised to arrive in Britain from all over the continent. Eighty million Germans want to break free from the hellholes that are Berlin and Munich, eager for the opportunity to sample the delights of Hansel and Pretzel on Ham Common; 10 million Belgians, sick to death of too many Godivas and desperate for a bar of Dairy Milk, are about to jump on a cross channel ferry. And, indeed, 60 million Brits must be readying themselves to nip over the water purely for the experience of sailing back into Dover, for they too are included in his "numbers" of folk who could be about to invade this sceptered isle.
Except, of course, it’s not going to happen. It’s a big scary number and that’s why Nigel Farage likes it – because he can frighten people with it. And for me that was the theme of the debate – Nigel trying to scare people into thinking his way. What would he want people to take from the debate last night I wonder? Twenty nine million Romanian and Bulgarians could be coming? Every family on the continent is going to come here and start claiming child benefit? The churches are going to be sued over equal marriage? Factories will be closed and your jobs transferred to Leipzig? And it’s going to cost you £55m a day? None of which is actually true. But that’s hardly the point.
Because this stuff sticks. Few folk will remember the facts and figures today. But they will recall the general tenor of the debate. Farage’s sweeping generalisations and grandiose statements against Nick’s more forensic grip on the actual facts – and in an emotional vs. rational debate, it’s generally the former that gets traction. And for me, that’s the challenge Nick has in the next debate. It’s easier to look passionate wrapped in a flag extolling the virtues of fish and chips, cups of tea and lashings of ginger beer than it is when you’re explaining that its better to be part of a trading group with a GDP of $16.6trn when on your own you’re the 8th or 9th largest economy, and China is five times bigger than you.
But that’s what it will take to burst the Farage bubble. Nick needs to come armed with some pointed barbs, a few more jokes and a lot more passion. He won the debate last night. But it’s not enough just to win the head. Next week, we need to win people’s hearts as well.
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference