EU referendum debate: David Cameron outshines Nigel Farage by appealing to the unconverted

The Prime Minister's conciliatory tone contrasted with the Ukip leader's tetchiness. 

NS

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This was the clash the Leave campaign did not want. When ITV announced that David Cameron and Nigel Farage would appear on the same programme, it was accused of joining the "official In campaign" and darkly warned of "consequences for its future". The reason was Farage. As Leave knows all too well, the Ukip leader is a man who repels, rather than attracts swing voters. 

If there were no dramatic gaffes from Farage tonight, his performance confirmed his profound limitations. Though he struck populist blows against "the rich getting richer" and Jean-Claude Juncker ("we're not going to be bullied by anybody, least of all the unelected"), he failed to offer the reassurance that a Brexit-sceptic public craves. "No deal is better than the rotten deal we've got at the moment," he declared on the economy, a line perfectly crafted to alienate risk-averse voters. 

Farage frequently interrupted audience members, patronisingly telling a woman to "calm down" when challenged on his demagogic warning of migrant sex attacks. The Ukip base will have lapped it up but centrist voters will have been unimpressed. Farage again showed why he is a 15 per cent politician, not a 50 per cent one. 

Appearing half an hour later, Cameron delivered one of his best performances of the campaign, deploying Remain's central attacks while reaching out to the unpersuaded. He dealt more ably with his side's weakest subject (immigration) than Farage did with the economy. But Leave will have cheered his admission that he had "no forecast" of the amount that his migrant benefits ban would reduce immigration. As Cameron knows but can't say, it will have little or no effect because so few migrants enter for that purpose. He remains unwilling to make the positive case for a liberal approach. 

Though delivering an unambiguous argument for EU membership, Cameron showed necessary flashes of scepticism. "Sometimes it drives me mad," he admitted of Brussels. "Do I like the European Parliament? Frankly, I don't like it very much". Reform, he vowed, would not end on 23 June (though Leave will press him on the details). But he hammered home the point that the risks of leaving outweigh the risks of remaining. 

Reclaiming the mantle of patriotism from the Brexiters, Cameron's strongest moment came when he borrowed a line from Peter Mandelson (and Richard Nixon). "We're fighters, not quitters," he declared of Britain, admonishing Farage's "little England" vision. Unlike the Ukip leader, Cameron was impeccably courteous ("very good question") to sceptical questioners. There was no sign of Flashman tonight. By the end, one was reminded why Cameron won the first Tory majority since 1992 while Farage has failed seven times to become an MP. There was little tonight to suggest this pattern will be reversed on 23 June. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.