Tonight’s Clegg Farage debate on Britain’s membership of the EU was far more combative than last week’s. Nick Clegg came out swinging from the start. In a sign of how much Ukip have changed politics, it was Clegg who was behaving like the challenger and Farage the incumbent. But despite this change in tactics from Clegg, the result—according to the instant post-debate polls—was the same: a clear Farage win. Indeed, the polls had Farage ahead by an even bigger margin than last week.
The Liberal Democrats argue that these debates were not about Clegg ‘winning’, but of him enthusing the Liberal Democrat base and appealing to pro-European voters. I suspect that his blanket denunciations of ‘people like Nigel Farage’ and attacks on Ukip for wanting to go back to the days when WG Grace opened the batting for England did that. But I suspect, and the polls suggest, that this approach turned off other voters.
Farage rode Clegg’s punches well and kept positioning himself as the anti-establishment figure ranged against the political class and big business. This culminated in his closing appeal to join the ‘people’s army’ to topple the pro-EU establishment. These debates have given Ukip real momentum going into the European Elections. It was striking tonight how much Farage was pitching to the working class vote, on both immigration and green energy he emphasised how the real losers from these policy were low income voters. Farage knows that these voters hold the key to Ukip topping the poll in May.
A strong Ukip performance in the European Elections would send the Tory party into a frenzy. But the consolation for David Cameron from tonight’s debate was how Clegg seems to be accepting more and more of his renegotiation agenda. Indeed, Clegg was positively boasting about how the government had tightened up the benefit rules for EU migrants. It all left me thinking that Cameron’s pledge of an EU renegotiation is not as much of an obstacle to a second coalition with Clegg as Westminster thinks that it is.