Even though it’s not unreasonable to predict that both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage can emerge from tonight’s LBC debate feeling they’ve won (they’re preaching to quite different choirs), it’s still worth remembering that the one who lands a killer blow or smart put down will get the best clip on the 10 o’clock news.
David Cameron says he won’t be watching the debate, implying he’s not bothered by this sideshow. Few believe this. But as he does furtively follow the exchanges while pretending to watch one of his favourite box sets, the Prime Minister will see both Farage and Clegg rubbish his renegotiation strategy. The former thinks it is hopeless and that the UK should just leave the EU. The latter likes to remind everyone that he too is in favour of reform, just not conducted with a gun held to fellow leaders’ heads.
The running commentary from UKIP and the Lib Dems on this shouldn’t worry the PM. But what should is that the two groups of MPs closest to his European vision, the Fresh Start Project and European Mainstream, both contain many MPs agitating for signs of a bit more action. Fresh Start MPs are more likely to favour the appointment of a negotiator who can devote the next few years to convincing other EU member states of the case for reform in a way the busy Prime Minister cannot. European Mainstream Tories are keen for ministers to make the most of the opportunities they already have to do this (although other eurosceptics remain a little grumpy that Ken Clarke is one of the ministers with these opportunities). But there is anxiety amongst those MPs who are less optimistic about how easy reform will be that the PM isn’t going to make the most of the opportunities in good time. Which is something for him to mull as he chomps on popcorn and watches Nick v Nigel tonight.