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