Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage during the LBC debate on EU membership. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Clegg and Farage both got what they needed out of this debate

Audiences called the debate for Ukip but the Lib Dems are happy to have established their leader as the man who dares defend Britain's EU membership.

The instant YouGov opinion poll of the audience awarded victory to Nigel Farage. 57% thought the Ukip leader performed better; 36% called it for Nick Clegg. The rest didn’t know.

That may well reflect the underlying suspicion of the European Union that seems to be an immovable feature of British public opinion. In that respect, Clegg had the tougher gig in defending the “in” cause – standing up for a proposition endorsed by a despised political establishment. Farage needed to articulate popular resentment of the EU. His strength was in expressing that view with a degree of measured authority. He didn’t, for the most part, come across as foam-flecked maniac. He came close on a couple of occasions. (And his assertion at the end of the debate that the EU has “blood on its hands” in Ukraine stands out as a moment of intellectual depravity. Taking the Kremlin line verbatim is not a good look for any leader of a British political party.)

Clegg got off to shaky start. That was chiefly because the first question was the toughest one he had to face – why not have a referendum and why not have one now? Farage won that exchange by making the simple assertion that many pro-Europeans don’t like to ask voters the big question because they are afraid of the answer. And that, of course, is sadly true.

It was only once the Lib Dem leader got into the economic arguments and the question of cross-border policing that he got into his stride. His strategy was to ram home the line that jobs would be at stake if Britain “pulls up the drawbridge” and to keep the debate for the most part technical – his refrain about “sticking to facts” seems deliberately calibrated to steer the conversation away from emotional rhetoric. He knows on that level the pro-EU case is much harder to make in a way that resonates. He allowed himself a touchy-feely excursion on gay marriage and the democratising power of EU enlargement and those were some of his strongest moments.

It seemed to me that, taken as a whole, Clegg had more pace and poise during the debate, while Farage had moments of great effectiveness punctuated by sweaty and intemperate interludes. But the audience verdict was less generous to the deputy Prime Minister.

Still, the Lib Dems I’ve spoken to so far seem genuinely pleased with the outcome. They wryly point out that Clegg hasn’t polled 36% in anything recently, so he goes home a winner in that respect. It is worth noting that in his closing statement, the Lib Dem leader quite explicitly asked pro-Europeans to lend him their votes in May’s European parliamentary election. This, ultimately, is the point of the exercise. His message: you may not like me or the Lib Dems but in this particular race we are the only way to express support for Britain’s EU membership. (I looked into Lib Dem thinking on this point in more detail here.)

For Farage, the purpose of the exercise was to establish Ukip as a significant player in national politics whose leader debates on equal terms with top government ministers. He needed to retain some of the irreverence and forthright language that makes voters think of him as an outsider, while also presenting sufficient substance when standing next to the Deputy Prime Minister. By and large, he pulled that off. There will have been a few Tory MPs watching and listening tonight, asking themselves why David Cameron can’t bring himself to say some of the things the Ukip leader was saying. The main message that Farage’s team wants to project is that their man put himself “at the head of the Eurosceptic movement” in Britain. And he probably did; just as Clegg effectively projected himself as head of the pro-EU side of the debate. That’s what they each wanted. In all likelihood, very few minds were changed yet both sides go home satisfied.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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