Nick Clegg knows that the British will never be romantic Europeans but he believes that they can be pragmatic Europeans. In his first TV debate with Nigel Farage, he eschewed dreamy notions of “ever closer union” in favour of a hard-headed case for the EU: it creates jobs, catches criminals and supports British businesses. Armed with a barrage of statistics, he got the better of the UKIP leader. Clegg was calmer, sharper and more persuaive than a tetchy and sweaty Farage.
The debate did not start well for him. He struggled to defend the Lib Dems’ decision not to support a guaranteed in/out EU referendum as Farage charged him with simply not “trusting the people”. On immigration, he took the UKIP leader to task for claiming that “29 million” Romanians and Bulgarians could come to the UK, noting that there aren’t even that many people in those countries. But Farage punched back strongly, declaring that there were not 29 million because two million had already left and that the free movement of people (a fundamental condition of EU membership) means 485 million have access to Britain. He argued pragmatically that UKIP was in favour of “work permits”, which would allow the UK to attract the best from India and New Zealand, not the hoardes of eastern Europe.
But as the contest went on, Clegg’s greater experience showed as he wore down a tired Farage. Forget losing three million jobs, he said (accepting the fallibility of that age-old stat), EU withdrawal wasn’t worth a single job. At a time of economic insecurity, it was a smart appeal to voters’ basic instincts. His strongest moment came when a questioner raised the European arrest warrant. Citing case after case (from Jeremy Forrest to terrorist bombers), he declared that the EU helps us to lock away “murderers, rapists and paedophiles”. It was another appeal to the head, rather than the heart, and it worked.
With Clegg always likely to best him on detail, Farage needed to land rhetorical blows – but most of his punches fell flat. He fluffed the inevitable quip that he “didn’t agree with Nick” and his populist patter failed to move the audience. As Farage derided the Deputy PM’s eurocrat past, Clegg smartly noted that he was the one who was still a European politician, and Farage’s lament that he was forced to employ his wife as he works such long hours and has “so little fun” was risible.
But for all this, it is worth remembering that Farage’s mere presence tonight was a victory. The leader of a party with no MPs has been elevated to equal status with the Deputy Prime Minister. It will now be far harder to exclude from the leaders’ debates in 2015 and to dismiss him as a crankish maverick. For that reason, it is David Cameron who may yet prove to be the biggest loser from tonight.
P.S. The post-debate YouGov poll gave victory to Farage by 57 per cent to 37 per cent. Clegg’s strategist Ryan Coetzee is pointing out that this is far higher than the 8 per cent the Lib Dems attract in European election polls. I’m not sure I accept his logic; UKIP could equally point out that 57 per cent is far higher than their usual poll rating. But it is undoubtedly true that the debates could help Clegg to win back Lib Dem defectors and that there is a significant pool of pro-Europeans to appeal to. In a low turnout election, a small swing to the party could make the difference between retaining some of its MEPs and being left with none.