My Total Politics column: Nick v Nigel – hope is now the official Lib Dem electoral strategy

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2014

“Listen, don’t mention Ukip! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it.” It’s not (quite) a line from Fawlty Towers, but has been the conventional wisdom of the three main party leaders for years.

David Cameron broke this omerta once, labelling Ukip’s supporters “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. That was back in 2006. Afterwards, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems reverted to the agreed line: stick your fingers in your ears and pretend Nigel Farage doesn’t exist. “If you want Britain to leave the EU then only a vote for Ukip will achieve that,” he’d bellow. “Did you hear someone say something?” Cameron would ask. “Nothing,” replied Nick Clegg. “Nor me,” echoed Ed Miliband.

Until now, that is. Suddenly the Lib Dem leader has broken ranks. In February Clegg struck a d’Artagnan-like duelling pose, throwing down the gauntlet to his Ukip foe: “I will challenge Nigel Farage to a public open debate about whether we should be in or out of the European Union, because that is now the choice facing this country and he is the leader of the party of ‘Out’, I am the leader of the party of ‘In’.” Farage accepted 48 hours later, though his response lacked its usual ebullience: “I have absolutely no choice. I’ve got to say yes.”

At the Lib Dems’ spring conference in March, Farage was everywhere. I turned to page 5 of the conference agenda: there, prominently staring at me, was a picture of the Ukip leader. He was there in the punchlines of party president Tim Farron’s rallying pro-EU speech: “So Nigel, are we better off in or out?” And he was there on stage, when – in perhaps the most misjudged conference appearance since Sarah Teather tried her stand-up routine – Solihull MP Lorely Burt donned a Farage mask, and brandished a pint of beer and a cigarette. (Don’t worry, it was a fake cigarette: this was a Lib Dem conference.)

“Why?” you might ask. What do the Lib Dems think they’ll gain from promoting Farage as the bogeyman of the European elections and themselves as his vanquisher?

For a start, the Lib Dems aim to appeal to that segment of the British population that shares their pro-Europeanism, a group spanning the progressive left, moderate right and internationalist liberals.

Happily enough, this principled stance is also smart politics. In the Nick v. Nigel debates, far more people will be agreeing with Nick than at any time since May 2010. And among the 25 per cent of the public who would consider voting Lib Dem – the party’s target ‘market’ – the pro-European pitch plays pretty well.

But the strategy isn’t just aimed at the voters: Nick Clegg needs also to re-enthuse his party. After four years of Coalition compromise – welfare cuts, tuition fees U-turn, NHS reforms, ‘secret courts’ – his troops are battered and bruised. The Lib Dems have shed one-third of their members and thousands of councillors have been lost in battle. For a party that is reliant on the foot-slog of Stakhanovite activists delivering leaflets and canvassing door-by-door to get its message across, such attrition poses a major threat to its get-out-the-vote operation.

2015 has been labelled a ‘survival election’ for the Lib Dems, and it is. But Clegg knows he needs to offer his party more than simply avoiding being wiped out next time to ignite its energies. Farage is a useful enemy. His anti-immigration isolationism genuinely offends the polyglot Clegg, married to a Spaniard, whose mother is Dutch and grandmother a Russian émigré. There is nothing feigned or strained in his passionate denunciation of Ukip’s parochialism.

On this, Clegg and his party are as one. His ‘I love Britain’ conference speech – delighting in eccentric British obsessions such as the shipping forecast, queuing and cups of tea, interspersed with praise for British traditions such as tolerance, human rights and the rule of international law – earned him a genuine standing ovation. This was a transformation from the grudging ‘we’d better get to our feet because the cameras are watching’ applause of recent years. Clegg’s party has fallen a little bit back in love with him. And it’s all thanks to Nigel Farage and Ukip.

That isn’t enough, of course. The European elections on 22nd May will still be tough-going for the Lib Dems, likely to lose half (and possibly all) their current MEPs. That same day’s local elections – contested for the first time since the pre-Coalition heights of Cleggmania four years ago – will see another few hundred Lib Dem councillors defeated. It all seems grimly familiar. But Lib Dems are a stoic lot. This is a party, after all, which each year sings the self-deprecating shanty ‘Who’ll come-a-losing deposits with me?‘ at its end of conference knees-up.

“I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand,” said another John Cleese creation in Clockwise. Yet it’s the hope that keeps Lib Dems going. “Hope versus fear – it’s the oldest dividing line in politics,” argues Nick Clegg. That’s right, it’s official: hope is now the Lib Dem electoral strategy. Fingers crossed.