Why did Nick Clegg bother debating Nigel Farage? The Ukip leader bagged two decisive victories in the battles. But that doesn’t mean the Lib Dem leader has failed to set out what he wanted to do.
Clegg needed these debates to reach out to his base, to motivate them to go out campaigning and vote in May. He didn’t need to ‘win’ in order to do that: he just needed to put the case for EU membership loudly and proudly. He had to remind some of his party’s supporters why they joined the Liberal Democrats and he needs to motivate pro-Europeans from other parties to lend their vote to the Lib Dems too in order to prevent a wipeout.
During the debate on Wednesday the Lib Dems sent a text message to all their members asking for £5 if Nigel Farage was making them angry. Yesterday, a special edition of the members’ magazine has dropped through letterboxes. The debates have become a huge hook for internal campaigning. The membership cares about Europe, and being able to talk about it turns members on and gets them out campaigning. And building up Farage as a right-wing bogeyman helps.
Externally, the entire ‘party of IN’ strategy has been based around setting out the Lib Dems as the only party sticking up for the UK’s place in the EU, and attracting a coalition of pro-EU voters. While 27 per cent of voters watching this week’s debate backing Clegg doesn’t sound like a nice return for a tough debate, the Lib Dems would sell various relatives and/or body parts to get that on 22 May, and that’s the real point.