Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage during the LBC debate on EU membership. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Hard-headed Clegg trumps Farage in LBC debate

The Deputy PM's pragmatic case for the EU gave him the edge over the tetchy UKIP leader.

Nick Clegg knows that the British will never be romantic Europeans but he believes that they can be pragmatic Europeans. In his first TV debate with Nigel Farage, he eschewed dreamy notions of "ever closer union" in favour of a hard-headed case for the EU: it creates jobs, catches criminals and supports British businesses. Armed with a barrage of statistics, he got the better of the UKIP leader. Clegg was calmer, sharper and more persuaive than a tetchy and sweaty Farage.

The debate did not start well for him. He struggled to defend the Lib Dems' decision not to support a guaranteed in/out EU referendum as Farage charged him with simply not "trusting the people". On immigration, he took the UKIP leader to task for claiming that "29 million" Romanians and Bulgarians could come to the UK, noting that there aren't even that many people in those countries. But Farage punched back strongly, declaring that there were not 29 million because two million had already left and that the free movement of people (a fundamental condition of EU membership) means 485 million have access to Britain. He argued pragmatically that UKIP was in favour of "work permits", which would allow the UK to attract the best from India and New Zealand, not the hoardes of eastern Europe.

But as the contest went on, Clegg's greater experience showed as he wore down a tired Farage. Forget losing three million jobs, he said (accepting the fallibility of that age-old stat), EU withdrawal wasn't worth a single job. At a time of economic insecurity, it was a smart appeal to voters' basic instincts. His strongest moment came when a questioner raised the European arrest warrant. Citing case after case (from Jeremy Forrest to terrorist bombers), he declared that the EU helps us to lock away "murderers, rapists and paedophiles". It was another appeal to the head, rather than the heart, and it worked.

With Clegg always likely to best him on detail, Farage needed to land rhetorical blows - but most of his punches fell flat. He fluffed the inevitable quip that he "didn't agree with Nick" and his populist patter failed to move the audience. As Farage derided the Deputy PM's eurocrat past, Clegg smartly noted that he was the one who was still a European politician, and Farage's lament that he was forced to employ his wife as he works such long hours and has "so little fun" was risible.

But for all this, it is worth remembering that Farage's mere presence tonight was a victory. The leader of a party with no MPs has been elevated to equal status with the Deputy Prime Minister. It will now be far harder to exclude from the leaders' debates in 2015 and to dismiss him as a crankish maverick. For that reason, it is David Cameron who may yet prove to be the biggest loser from tonight.

P.S. The post-debate YouGov poll gave victory to Farage by 57 per cent to 37 per cent. Clegg's strategist Ryan Coetzee is pointing out that this is far higher than the 8 per cent the Lib Dems attract in European election polls. I'm not sure I accept his logic; UKIP could equally point out that 57 per cent is far higher than their usual poll rating. But it is undoubtedly true that the debates could help Clegg to win back Lib Dem defectors and that there is a significant pool of pro-Europeans to appeal to. In a low turnout election, a small swing to the party could make the difference between retaining some of its MEPs and being left with none. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.