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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle