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26 March 2014

Clegg and Farage both got what they needed out of this debate

Audiences called the debate for Ukip but the Lib Dems are happy to have established their leader as the man who dares defend Britain's EU membership.

By Rafael Behr

The instant YouGov opinion poll of the audience awarded victory to Nigel Farage. 57% thought the Ukip leader performed better; 36% called it for Nick Clegg. The rest didn’t know.

That may well reflect the underlying suspicion of the European Union that seems to be an immovable feature of British public opinion. In that respect, Clegg had the tougher gig in defending the “in” cause – standing up for a proposition endorsed by a despised political establishment. Farage needed to articulate popular resentment of the EU. His strength was in expressing that view with a degree of measured authority. He didn’t, for the most part, come across as foam-flecked maniac. He came close on a couple of occasions. (And his assertion at the end of the debate that the EU has “blood on its hands” in Ukraine stands out as a moment of intellectual depravity. Taking the Kremlin line verbatim is not a good look for any leader of a British political party.)

Clegg got off to shaky start. That was chiefly because the first question was the toughest one he had to face – why not have a referendum and why not have one now? Farage won that exchange by making the simple assertion that many pro-Europeans don’t like to ask voters the big question because they are afraid of the answer. And that, of course, is sadly true.

It was only once the Lib Dem leader got into the economic arguments and the question of cross-border policing that he got into his stride. His strategy was to ram home the line that jobs would be at stake if Britain “pulls up the drawbridge” and to keep the debate for the most part technical – his refrain about “sticking to facts” seems deliberately calibrated to steer the conversation away from emotional rhetoric. He knows on that level the pro-EU case is much harder to make in a way that resonates. He allowed himself a touchy-feely excursion on gay marriage and the democratising power of EU enlargement and those were some of his strongest moments.

It seemed to me that, taken as a whole, Clegg had more pace and poise during the debate, while Farage had moments of great effectiveness punctuated by sweaty and intemperate interludes. But the audience verdict was less generous to the deputy Prime Minister.

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Still, the Lib Dems I’ve spoken to so far seem genuinely pleased with the outcome. They wryly point out that Clegg hasn’t polled 36% in anything recently, so he goes home a winner in that respect. It is worth noting that in his closing statement, the Lib Dem leader quite explicitly asked pro-Europeans to lend him their votes in May’s European parliamentary election. This, ultimately, is the point of the exercise. His message: you may not like me or the Lib Dems but in this particular race we are the only way to express support for Britain’s EU membership. (I looked into Lib Dem thinking on this point in more detail here.)

For Farage, the purpose of the exercise was to establish Ukip as a significant player in national politics whose leader debates on equal terms with top government ministers. He needed to retain some of the irreverence and forthright language that makes voters think of him as an outsider, while also presenting sufficient substance when standing next to the Deputy Prime Minister. By and large, he pulled that off. There will have been a few Tory MPs watching and listening tonight, asking themselves why David Cameron can’t bring himself to say some of the things the Ukip leader was saying. The main message that Farage’s team wants to project is that their man put himself “at the head of the Eurosceptic movement” in Britain. And he probably did; just as Clegg effectively projected himself as head of the pro-EU side of the debate. That’s what they each wanted. In all likelihood, very few minds were changed yet both sides go home satisfied.