Before the European Elections in May, don’t expect either David Cameron or Ed MIliband to engage with Nigel Farage. Both the Tory and Labour leaders think that the best strategy for dealing with Ukip and its leader is to deny them the oxygen of publicity. Nick Clegg, by contrast, is desperate for a scrap with the Ukip leader.
Clegg’s rationale is that the more fights he can pick with Farage, the more he can turn the European Elections into a fight between In—led by Clegg and the Liberal Democrats—and Out, championed by Farage and his party. Clegg hopes that this polarised contest will prevent a total wipeout of Lib Dem MEPs. Being pro-European might, to put it mildly, not be the most popular cause in Britain but it is a lot more popular than the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats are also hoping that positioning themselves as the party of ‘in’ can help them with the business vote. They want to present themselves to the corporate world and the City as a restraining influence on the two main parties, holding Labour back on tax and spending and the Tories on Europe.
There is also a more personal reason behind Clegg’s decision to pick a fight with Farage. The Lib Dem leader is an emotional pro-European. He has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife and believes in European integration in a way that few other British politicians do. He feels that this country is reaching a defining moment in its debate on Europe and that he has to stand up to those arguing for out.
Whatever Clegg does in the next few months, I expect that Ukip will comfortably outpoll the Liberal Democrats at the European Elections in May. But Clegg’s decision to take this stand is revealing of what he truly thinks is important in politics.