The benefits for both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage of debating Britain’s membership of the European Union on TV and radio tonight are clear. Each hopes to raise his profile and remind everyone that England has more than two parties worth considering in elections. (In Scotland and Wales that has been obvious for a while.)
Although they will be taking antagonistic positions they are not exactly rivals. The two leaders are fishing in fairly distinct pools of electors. Clegg is not in the business of reaching out to anti-immigration, anti-politics nay-sayers and Farage is even less interested in charming the liberal Europhile vote. As I wrote in my column recently, the Lib Dem leader’s chief aim is to rebut the charges that he doesn’t believe in anything and serves no obvious purpose. (Otherwise known as the “if the Lib Dems didn’t exist, would you have to invent them?” question.) Standing up as the anti-Farage – the only leader prepared to call Ukip out rather than cringing in fear – is not a bad way to claw back some self-respect for a party that has taken a sustained beating in recent years.
As one senior Lib Dem recently pointed out to me, since the party is sure to be mauled in local elections and European parliamentary elections in May, there is some virtue in facing the barrage from a position of clear principle. Better, in other words, to be duffed up for believing in something and sticking to it than for being David Cameron’s anonymous lapdog.
From Farage’s point of view, anything that establishes Ukip as a mainstream threat to the Westminster status quo is a win. But there are obvious risks. His appeal so far has been built on relatively short performances and bursts of publicity – the one-minute Question Time rant; the photo-shoot in the pub. It isn’t yet clear that he can sustain a credible argument over a length of time and he has recently displayed a tendency to get tetchy and impatient when challenged. I suspect part of Clegg’s strategy will be to flush out Nasty Nigel – the angry red-faced man railing in fear and rage at the modern world. The big advantage that the Ukip leader has is that he is on the more popular side of the argument. If it was easy to make EU membership obviously attractive to British audiences, one of the very many pro-European politicians in power over the past generation might have done it.
For that reason, pro-Europeans will be cheering Clegg on tonight. Well, most pro-Europeans. An interesting question is what the Labour party will be hoping happens in the prize fight. On the issues, the overwhelming majority of opposition MPs, including Ed Miliband, are much closer to the Lib Dem position than the Ukip one. Besides, a party of the left should by instinct want to see a reactionary nationalist insurgency defeated. Ideally, Labour would be taking that fight to Farage directly but Miliband already has his work cut out taking the fight to Cameron. And since Ukip is making life difficult for the Tories, taking their voters in crucial marginal seats, the opposition has an interest in Farage’s bubble not bursting.
By contrast, Cameron advertises himself as a Eurosceptic but he has committed himself to campaigning for an “in” vote in a referendum (albeit on the assumption that the vote follows a successful renegotiation of membership terms). His interests are clearly aligned with Clegg’s tonight. If the Lib Dem leader proves to be an effective foil to Farage, it gets easier to see how the tide might be turned against Ukip, which means voters coming back to the Tories in time for a 2015 general election. And, better still, if Clegg achieves any kind of recovery on the back of a solidly liberal pro-EU platform, it will be at Labour’s expense.
The line from both Labour and Tories is that tonight’s debate is a side-show for also-ran parties. A Downing Street spokesman yesterday said that Cameron was unlikely to have time even to watch the argument. No doubt Miliband also wants us to think that he is also too busy. And in reality most of the nation will find something better to do than sit through an hour of qualified majority voting weights and Strasbourg attendance records. But the leaders of the two big parties will, of course, be paying attention, not least because they will be looking for clues and insight into how a 2015 general election debate might play out. Cameron will be secretly rooting for Clegg. His party might not like that but the electoral logic is clear. Tories need Farage to fail. By extension, Labour need Clegg to stay beaten and Conservatives to stay frightened of Ukip. It is not a comfortable position for the opposition, wanting Farage’s arguments to be defeated at some stage but not wanting the man himself to stumble yet; not when he might still help clear a route for Miliband to get to Downing Street.