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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.