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Everyone’s talking about Nigel, but it’s Nick who has shaken up Westminster for good

The stubborn survival of Clegg may prove to be more significant than the noisy arrival of Farage.

There is a stark choice facing British politics, expressed in the rivalry between two leaders. They have very different styles and incompatible creeds. I refer, of course, to Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg.

Labour and the Tories have fought each other to a standstill. We already know the contours of every stone they throw. David Cameron is the haughty toff who cuts public services for pleasure. Ed Miliband is the gormless wonk without the strength to grip the axe. Their repetitive skirmishes win no defectors from the opposite tribe.

As a brace of midterm elections on 2 May showed, the fluid part of politics is elsewhere, in the competition to be England’s third party. In the race to fill David Miliband’s former South Shields seat, Farage’s candidate came second to Labour while Clegg’s came seventh. The Lib Dems lost 124 county councillors; Ukip gained 139. Clegg’s team are not as disheartened by those results as the other parties think they ought to be. They know that Labour strongholds are beyond reach and that a governing party cannot be a receptacle for protest. Hope resides instead in evidence that their support survived in parts of southern England with a local Lib Dem MP. If Ukip gnaws into the Tory base and Labour supporters vote tactically – a plausible scenario but not a reliable one – Clegg might hold enough seats to negotiate a new coalition in another hung parliament.

The Lib Dems are also encouraged by the failure of Labour and the Tories to neutralise public doubts that might deprive them of a majority. Miliband is not winning trust on the economy. Cameron is being dragged to the angry fringe by his party’s Ukip-fanciers. In theory, that opens up space for Clegg to present his party as more careful with money than Labour and nicer than the Tories.

Labour’s riposte is that the Lib Dems will sink in complicity with George Osborne’s economic vandalism. Meanwhile, those Conservatives who embrace Faragism insist it is no lunge to the right. Ukip, they say, feeds on anxieties about Europe, immigration and welfare that resonate across the political spectrum. They are right to the extent that voters mistrust all Westminster parties. That doesn’t mean the best response is to enter a rhetorical arms race with Farage. He will always win that game because he doesn’t have to say things that could turn into responsible government policy.

The worst reaction Tories could have to Ukip’s rise would be the one they look determined to pursue – parading their dissatisfaction with Cameron’s current Europe policy. Even before the council elections, Conservative MPs were lobbying the Prime Minister to underpin his promise of a 2017 referendum on renegotiated EU membership with a parliamentary vote this side of an election. Then Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor, declared the whole renegotiation strategy pointless and urged a prompter plebiscite. Enough Tories prefer the Lawson plan to Cameron’s for unity to be lost.

Judging by past form, Downing Street will resist a change of line and be bullied into one. This process sends two important signals. First, Tory MPs think a pledge from their leader is worthless currency. Second, the Prime Minister’s agenda is set by menaces, not conviction. That is an incitement for disillusioned Tories to stick with Ukip.

It is also coalition sabotage. One purpose of forcing an EU vote in parliament would be to expose the Lib Dems as obstacles to a referendum. Many Conservatives want to use the remainder of this parliament to advertise carnivorous things they would do once released from Clegg’s queasy yellow clutches – clawing away more benefits and chewing up human rights law, for example. But two years is a long time to preface every statement with “if only”. The Tories can either be the kind of party that does business with Clegg or be the kind that craves congress with Farage. They look ridiculous trying to be both.

For Lib Dems, the distinction is between two styles of politics. There is the managerial one, laden with compromise, made necessary by coalition. Or there is the chase after protest votes and none-of-the-above outrage that they know well but had to abandon on entering government. Add a history of being pro-European, relaxed about immigration and socially liberal and Clegg starts to look like the anti-Farage – a weary denier of popular solutions. “As a country, do we want the fantasy ‘close your eyes and wish it all away’ offer from Grinning Nigel?” is how one senior Lib Dem strategist puts it. “Or do we want serious, centrist government?”

In the current climate it might not be the most enticing proposition: Clegg as the continuity candidate of bloodless Westminster technocracy. Labour certainly thinks drastic change is in the air. Miliband believes the financial crisis heralds the obsolescence of old free-market dogmas. Many Tories also believe the centre of gravity has shifted, but in their preferred direction. They see Ukip’s success as proof that the new sweet spot is over to the right.

Only the Lib Dems insist that the centre ground is where it has been for a generation – between an expensive social conscience and flint-hearted frugality. They are also alone in wanting a hung parliament, which remains the likeliest general election outcome in 2015. The real disruption to the established way of doing politics may yet turn out to be not protest votes but coalition; not the noisy arrival of Farage but the stubborn survival of Clegg.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess