Liberal Democrat MP Lorley Burt walks on stage wearing a Nigel Farage mask at the party's spring conference in York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Clegg and Farage need to reach beyond their bases

The average British voter is not convinced by the case for the EU, nor persuaded that we would be better off out.

Both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage should be able to profit from their two-legged encounter, which kicks off this evening, but the event will also highlight the challenges which both parties face in winning this argument with the British public as a whole. For Ukip, the event is a sign of their growing mainstream political status. Challenges to debate tend to be issued by underdogs but, as with Gordon Brown issuing a challenge to opposition leader David Cameron in 2010, the office-holder can be the underdog.

The Deputy Prime Minister challenging a party leader with no Commons seats at all reflects the political reality that the Liberal Democrats are the underdogs in the European elections. In 2009, the Lib Dems came fourth and Ukip second, even when both parties were in opposition. In 2014, Ukip is confident its bid to top the poll can succeed, while a realistic Lib Dem ambition will be to secure enough support to hold off a Green challenge for fourth place. 

Clegg challenged Farage to these debates about Europe, but this means that he has challenged Ukip to a debate about immigration too. Nigel Farage will certainly want to make this a debate about immigration. The Ukip leader believes that the public care more about immigration than Europe. He is right about that - especially when it comes to those considering voting for his party.

For both Clegg and Farage, the debate offers an opportunity to play to their respective bases of support - on both issues. The question is whether either can reach beyond that. About one in four people will always prefer Clegg's unambiguously pro-European "party of in" stance to the UKIP bid to exit the club. These voters are comfortable with current levels of immigration too, and often struggle to see why anybody should worry about the benefits that it brings. About one in four people are convinced that Nigel Farage is right that Britain has no choice but to leave, and are determined to see immigration at the lowest possible level. Most of this group would want to close the borders if they could.

But that leaves most people open to persuasion, neither committed to Team Nick or Team Nigel. The average British voter is not convinced by the case for the EU, nor persuaded that we would be better off out. In a referendum tomorrow, the vote would be pretty evenly split. While almost half of voters say they know for sure how they will vote in a referendum, most say they could change their minds. When asked about Britain's long-term position, only 28 per cent want to leave the club. Meanwhile, 55 per cent say they would like to stay in the EU, though most of this group would like to see David Cameron successfully negotiate to reduce Brussels' powers. Seventeen per cent don't know. Beyond the "pro" and "anti" European tribes, the British public is open-minded and up for grabs.

Clegg's challenge is to make the liberal argument make sense beyond those groups - particularly graduates, younger voters and Londoners - who begin strongly disposed to his side of the argument. Perhaps less noticed is that Ukip face a similar challenge, or a reverse mirror image of that facing pro-European liberals. Though Ukip's self-image is one of offering a populist common sense challenge to the political elite, authoritative new research, by the academics Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, shows that they are not a "catch-all" populist party, but rather the party with the most distinctive sociological profile of all. The Ukip vote is older, more male, more working-class and more likely to have left school at 16. The party's messages resonate with these "left behind" voters - but have much more trouble connecting with Britons born after 1966.

Tactically, it could be argued that neither Clegg nor Farage needs to reach out much when it comes to a pre-European elections face-off.  After all, only one-third of the electorate will participate in May's vote. Preaching to the already-converted can be enough in a low participation, low stakes and low salience election. 

But, strategically, both men should realise that this is not enough if they want to engage and try to win the bigger, contested arguments about the national interest: whether Britain is better off in or out; whether the EU can be reformed to better reflect our interests and values, or whether that is a quixotic quest; whether the British could decide that EU free movement is a two-way street worth keeping, or at least a price worth paying. 

These issues will not be settled by this initial skirmish at the European election hustings, nor by the European elections themselves. Both Clegg and Farage are interested in winning the public argument about Britain's future: they each need to try to reach out to the unpersuaded majority too.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.