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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.