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Why Clegg and Farage will both win from their debates

Farage gets to enter the political establishment, while Clegg has a chance to reconnect with those voters who warmed to him in 2010.

You could almost, almost, feel the anticipation pulsing through the Westminster bubble as the breaking news was announced on Wednesday: the BBC are to host a head-to-head debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage in April on the UK’s future in Europe. This is will be an important moment in British politics. Though it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will actually watch it, the debate will set the tone for the European parliament elections barely a month later, which will in turn influence the narrative for the general election next year.

What impact will it have? The truth is we just don’t know. The leaders' debates in 2010 saw Clegg’s personal ratings, and those of his party, rocket immediately following the first debate. By the time of the election just a few weeks later, however, the Lib Dems had only increased their vote share by 1 percentage point from 2005 and had suffered a net loss of five seats. 

While their performance was doubtless better than it would have been without the debates, the boost diminished as election day approached.  It can be argued, though, that without “Cleggmania”, Clegg would not have been in a position to negotiate for himself the job of Deputy Prime Minister. His own personal position had been elevated, he became a nationally known – and very popular – political figure. Fast forward a few months later, however, and Clegg had been hammered in the polls having gone into coalition with the Conservatives and (shortly afterwards) broken his promise on tuition fees.  The scale and speed of his fall from popularity was perhaps exacerbated by the unnaturally high position he was enjoying post-debates.

By agreeing to the debate, Clegg is risking Nigel Farage benefiting in the same way he did. He is elevating the leader of a party with no MPs, and that achieved just over 3 per cent of the vote at the general election, to a platform alongside the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of a party that won 23 per cent of the vote four years ago. Farage is currently a popular, if unscrutinised, politician. In February, ComRes found that 24 per cent of the public have a favourable opinion of UKIP, higher than the 17 per cent that are positive about the Lib Dems. Farage, meanwhile, is more popular (20 per cent) than Clegg (13 per cent), though David Cameron is the most popular party leader with 31 per cent.

Clearly, then, Clegg has little to lose in the popularity stakes: he is the least popular leader of the least popular party. He and his team will have calculated that the Deputy Prime Minister performed well in this medium before and it may have the opportunity to restore some popularity and perhaps even credibility – his ratings could hardly get worse. Perhaps more significantly, by taking this on he is becoming the face of the pro-European movement in Britain.

Farage stands with plenty to gain but also plenty to lose by agreeing to the debate. His party stood at 11 per cent in the most recent ComRes poll, broadly in line with the Lib Dems' 10 per cent. UKIP are riding the crest of a wave, enjoying national levels of support that even the most optimistic supporter could not have imagined just a few years ago. While Farage is an accomplished public performer, he hasn’t been exposed to this sort of intense scrutiny before. This will be an hour-long primtime BBC debate against an experienced political opponent. The self-styled "maverick" of British politics is entering into the political establishment with this move.  His customary pint and cigarette will have to be put away for the hour.

Clegg believes the debate gives him the opportunity to take on the UKIP leader, undermine his arguments and expose him as a man short on ideas and substance. Farage, meanwhile, hopes to continue the momentum his party is building, increasing awareness of his party and trying to cement them in the mind of voters as a credible alternative to the status quo. If he does well in the Clegg debate, and in the European elections a few weeks later, it will put him in a powerful position to claim a place in the 2015 leadership debates.

Ultimately, though, it is likely that there will be no knock-out blow, just as there was none in 2010, and that both men will be able to claim a victory of sorts. This outcome may in fact benefit both leaders. Farage will be able to keep steam-train UKIP on track, while Clegg may re-establish his relationship with those who warmed to him in 2010. The Lib Dems may even be calculating – though it is a high risk strategy - that strong UKIP performance in 2015 benefits them by hiving off Conservative votes in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.

Whatever the outcome, it is an important moment as we head towards 2015, with yet another first for British politics adding to the intrigue and uncertainty. We wait to see if Faragemania is about to break out. 

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.