Nick Clegg during his debate with Nigel Farage on EU membership last night. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To burst the Farage bubble, Clegg needs to win hearts, not just heads

Next week, the Deputy PM needs some pointed barbs, a few more jokes and a lot more passion.

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

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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