Clegg v Farage: why Nick needs Nigel

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2014

Some smart stuff from Nick Clegg this morning, issuing a direct challenge to Ukip’s Nigel Farage to debate him on Europe.

For starters, it seizes the initiative. Nick’s been ambushed often enough on his radio phone-in show, Call Clegg, with the producers lining up disgusted ex-Lib Dem members, and folk like Boris Johnson and Cathy Newman, to spring awkward questions on him. Today he turned the tables. The speed with which emails from the party pinged into my inbox – complete with petition to sign – show this was a planned surprise.

It’s succeeded in catching Nigel Farage off-guard. The Ukip leader wants to think through the pros and cons. If he agrees to Nick’s challenge, will it weaken his case for appearing in 2015′s televised leaders’ debates? Should he demand a four-way debate – even though he must know that’s a non-starter and it might look like he’s unwilling to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Nick? They’re fair enough questions to want to think through. But in today’s insta-response news climate, Nige’s lack of immediate enthusiasm will dent his carefully cultivated image of un-spun, devil-may-care, shoot-from-the-hip, take-on-all-comers man-of-the-people.

In a funny way, Nick Clegg needs Ukip.

The Lib Dems are mounting an unabashedly pro-European campaign for this May’s elections. It’s a strategy which combines principle – the party is united in support of the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union – with campaigning nous: the hope is that casting a positive vote for the Lib Dems (“the party of IN”) will motivate activists to get out the vote in May.

LD conf brochure farageBut for that to cut through, to have real traction, the party also needs a real threat, a clearly defined opponent. Ukip is that threat, that opponent. It’s why Nigel Farage’s visage is so prominent in the party’s Spring Conference agenda (see right).

But Ukip isn’t the only party discomforted by Nick Clegg’s happiness to be defined as the only true pro-European party. The last thing either the Tories or Labour want is to have to talk that much about the EU. For a start, neither party is that united on the issue, though that’s most painfully true of the Tories whereas most in Labour don’t care over-much.

But at least as importantly, both know that Ukip’s popularity impacts directly on their own. In last May’s local elections, when Ukip’s surge startled everyone, Labour’s vote went down more sharply than did the Tories’ – as Mark Pack highlighted here.

True, the Lib Dems have also lost some of our plague-on-all-their-houses votes to Ukip. But the party has much less reason to be scared of Ukip putting forward their ‘stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off-pull-up-the-drawbridge-nothing-against-them-personally-but-we’re-full-and-another-thing-health-and-safety-some-of-my-best-friends-are–all-the-parties-are-the-same-I’d-emigrate-if-I-could’ platform.

Nick Clegg knows all this, of course. He has little to lose, much to gain – which, ironically, means he has least to worry about.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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