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Westminster is in thrall to the cult of Farage – but Clegg knows that most voters see through it

There are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism.

There are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do.
Liberal Democrat MP Lorley Burt walks on stage wearing a Nigel Farage mask at the party's spring conference in York. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Cameron has handled Ukip like an intimate rash. There was an itch he couldn’t help scratching but scratching only made it worse. Now he is trying to ignore it in the hope it will go away.

He certainly doesn’t want to talk about it. The Prime Minister aims to reach the general election in May 2015 without sharing a platform with Nigel Farage or even uttering his name. Downing Street hopes that Ukip’s popularity will peak at the local council and European Parliament elections this May, if not before. Meanwhile, Cameron’s strategy is to avoid gratuitously offending the party’s supporters.

For Ed Miliband, the relationship is more complex. His instincts are antithetical to those of Farage but their interests are tactically aligned. Currently, Ukip poaches more votes from ex-Conservatives than from disgruntled Labourites in vital marginal seats, so the longer the Farage phenomenon endures, the likelier it is that the Labour leader ends up in No 10.

To the extent that Labour has a strategy for dealing with Ukip voters, it is to sympathise with their rage while steering blame away from migrants and benefit claimants. A Labour government that guarantees jobs, higher wages and affordable homes is expected to neutralise resentment of foreigners for supposedly driving down pay and colonising council houses. That is a theory to explain when Farage might go away, not a campaign to see him off.

So there is a vacancy for someone who will confront the Ukip leader on his own terms. Nick Clegg has awarded himself that honour. The Liberal Democrat leader used a speech at his party’s spring conference on 9 March to express a brand of liberal patriotism celebrating a “modern, open, tolerant” Britain that tends to want to be part of Europe, as distinct from a fearful and reactionary blend of Little England nostalgia that wants out. Clegg will debate the merits of Britain’s EU membership with Farage live on television in April.

Lib Dem strategists are not expecting the party to be buoyed by some great surge of enthusiasm for Brussels. They note only that a liberal Europhile position currently polls better than Clegg (as do many things). Since the party shed much of its core support by forming a coalition with the Tories, it needs to recruit a new cohort of voters. Salvation depends on finding people who agree with Nick and just don’t know it yet.

This plan isn’t entirely delusional. Liberal dismay at the main parties’ craven response to Farage extends beyond the question of Europe. The Ukip leader has enjoyed privileged media status as a spicy character in an otherwise bland political drama and as the incarnation of public loathing of politicians. Fringe idiocy in Ukip’s ranks has not escaped ridicule but there is in Westminster a strain of self-hating deference to the party’s voters, as if their jaundiced view of modern Britain were more authentic than other political opinions. In reality, there are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism. Just as the Ukip leader wants to channel anti-establishment anger, Clegg wants to channel a cosmopolitan backlash against the cult of Farage.

It is worth a try. The Lib Dems have been supremely disciplined through successive local election ravages – but their patience is not infinite. Clegg has so far managed to avert despair with the argument that it is better to be harried in office than to be irrelevant in opposition. Since another hung parliament looks plausible after the next election, there is always hope of staying in power.

There are Labour and Tory MPs who assert with bitter confidence that Clegg, as a likely coalition kingmaker, has more reason than Miliband or Cameron to be sure of being in power after 2015. That calculation rests on the record of tenacious Lib Dem incumbents in fortified bastion seats bucking a national trend. It also presumes that, since the party has been bumping along the bottom for three years, the only way is up.

To sustain that story, Clegg needs to show some progress in May, although abject defeat would probably not provoke a leadership challenge. The party’s regicidal impulse, once so quick, has been numbed by the duty to look responsible in government. It would be roused only by a general election catastrophe.

It helps that expectations of Lib Dem performance are so low. Clegg’s office is happy to keep them that way. Senior aides present the debates with Farage in modest terms, as an opportunity to get a neglected pro-EU argument across, rather than some prizefight in which Europhobia might be dealt a knockout blow. At best, the Lib Dems hope to add a few points to their vote share over the coming months, dragging it into the mid-teens from single-digit ignominy and avoiding the eviction of every one of the party’s MEPs from Strasbourg.

Besides, Ukip support is about a lot more than Europe. Farage’s voters are recruited from across the political spectrum and animated by a complex of resentments, insecurities and prejudices. They nurture a feeling that politicians have conspired to turn Britain into a place that suits metropolitan elites. Clegg’s contention is that more people are happy with the current complexion of the country than Farage is letting on and that some of them are frustrated by what they see as tacit endorsement by Miliband and Cameron of the Ukip gripe.

The Lib Dems can’t realistically expect to convert that sentiment into enthusiasm for their party. They just need to borrow some votes in May to make a point. Or rather, by standing as the very opposite of Farage, they hope to bring some clarity to the enduring mystery in many voters’ minds of what might be the point of Nick Clegg.