Your essential Nick v Nigel debate reader: 15 articles to get you match-fit ahead of tonight’s live encounter

by Stephen Tall on March 26, 2014

Today’s the day of the first Nick v Nigel debate. Here’s your essential reader ahead of tonight’s first encounter between the Lib Dem and Ukip leaders…

Three LibDemVoice articles…

First, let’s recall how the debate came about – Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to the debate live on his LBC radio phone-in last month: “It’s a brave, maybe audacious move,” said my co-editor Caron Lindsay, “but Nick has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He’s also honed his already good debating skills since his success in 2010.”

And as I pointed out then, it was a smart move from Clegg (or, more accurately, Ryan Coetzee):

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. But 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.

Open Europe’s Pawel Swidlicki stuck a more cautionary note on LibDemVoice’s Independent View strand yesterday, arguing that Nick Clegg needs argue for reform of the EU not just the UK staying in the EU: “with the public more or less split down the middle on the in/out question, reform is not only not only worth pursuing as an end in itself, but also as a means of securing an ‘in’ vote when the referendum eventually comes.”

Don’t forget: #NickVNigel – 7pm tonight (LBC, Sky News)

You can listen to the hour-long debate live tonight at 7pm on LBC Radio – the station’s published an ‘All You Need To Know’ guide here. It’s also being broadcast by Sky News – Adam Boulton‘s preview is here.

Not to be out-done the BBC – which will host the second debate in a week’s time (also broadcast on Sky) – offers its own ‘Tale of the Tape’ preview from Brian Wheeler here, assessing their strengths and also their weaknesses:

Nick Clegg used to get a bit tetchy with interviewers and political opponents when things were not going his way, but office seems to have mellowed him. His biggest debate weakness may be what he represents – the smooth, Oxbridge-educated political elite that Nigel Farage loves to rail against. The UKIP leader can also have a short fuse (remember his anger over Godfrey Bloom’s “sluts” gaffe last year?). He will want to avoid being boxed into a corner over the issue of expenses and his party’s alleged exploitation of the Brussels gravy train.

What the Lib Dems and Nigel are saying about it

The Lib Dems have their own preview here, highlighting what will surely be Nick’s rallying cry – that the EU is good for jobs:

In addition to the economic benefits of Britain’s membership in the EU, the research also highlights the importance of remaining in the EU to voters. Public opinion research into the electorate’s view on Europe shows the public’s decision on staying or leaving the EU will be most swayed by economic factors, in particular the creation of jobs.

But Nigel Farage is, as you would expect, bullish, writing an article in today’s Independent, My live debate with Nick Clegg is upon us. Does he realise what is about to hit him?:

What Nick Clegg and I will be debating in the first round on LBC is whether we want to be either part of political union or a free, self-governing nation. Because at the heart of this debate is the question of identity: are we “European” or “British”?

What the papers say…

The debate matters greatly to both: Nick Clegg aims to boost Lib Dem support ahead of the 22 May Euro elections, defining us as ‘The Party of IN’; equally Nigel Farage knows the pressure is on Ukip to top the poll – anything less will be seen now as a disappointment. But, like every fretting student ahead of an exam, they’re doing their best to play down how much they’ve been swotting up. Here’s James Kirkup in today’s Telegraph:

Even as the broadcasters devote hours of planning to the debates, the two main actors were engaging in pre-fight shadow-boxing, each insisting they did not need to work too hard to beat the other man. “We’ll be doing research and preparation but I don’t believe in being over prepared,” Mr Farage said. “That is one of the mistakes that people tend to make. With these formats one has to speak with what one actually feels and believes.” Lib Dem sources also played down the preparations, suggesting Mr Clegg was more than ready to “have it out” with the Ukip leader. A source said: “He does his phone-in every week, he does regular meetings with voters. He’s match fit.”

Over at Huffington Post, Mehdi Hasan has tried to do Nick Clegg’s work for him: 19 Questions Nick Clegg Should Ask Nigel Farage in LBC’s Europe Debate. It’s mainly a roll-call of things to like about the EU or to dislike about Ukip, but question 19′s a good ‘un (albeit not all the facts here would stand up to independent scrutiny):

What is it that you most object to about the UK’s membership of the EU – the cheaper and safer flights; the cheaper and better phone calls; the cleaner beaches and action on climate change; the higher food safety standards; the tackling of cross-border crime; the single market; the 3 million jobs; the 57 years of peace; the global influence?

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour takes a more objective look at the top 5 issues up for discussion, but finds space for a cheeky ‘Things they probably should not say’ riff:

Farage: “I agree with Nick” (even if he means Nick Ferrari, the debate’s moderator). Or “Some of my best friends are foreigners.”
Clegg: “I agree with Nigel.” Or “Some of our best nannies are foreigners.”

The Times‘s leader column thunders its approval of the debate with hyperbolic anticipation of Nick v Nigel: “They are political, cultural and temperamental opposites. This is Godzilla versus King Kong.” It goes on to make a more serious point about the supposedly apathetic British public’s evident appetite for debating serious issues:

It must be obvious that national, broadcast debates like this do not happen often enough. Similar exchanges could usefully be held on subjects such as immigration, the health services and intervention abroad. All that is needed is the willingness of broadcasters to schedule them and for senior politicians to take part.

And let’s not forget the absentee leaders not at the debate

Ben Brogan at the Telegraph is clear who the losers may end up being – the two leaders sitting the debate out, Ed Miliband and in particular David Cameron:

If Mr Farage keeps his temper and emerges with his reputation as a gadfly of the Right enhanced, it will cause anguish in Tory constituencies. Equally, if Mr Clegg delivers a statesmanlike performance that develops the reputation he has built with his radio phone-ins as an easy-going Mr Normal, it will worry Conservative HQ. Between them, they have an opportunity to damage the Tories.

Nick v Nigel: it could be a win-win

And Robert Hutton at Bloomberg reckons that both Clegg and Farage will gain from the encounters: “the likeliest outcome is that each side will boost support among voters who are already sympathetic”. Which sounds about right to me – except that the number of voters who are sympathetic to Nick far exceeds the number of current Lib Dem voters. And that’s the point, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson concludes:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, your votes have been cast… the judges have reached their verdict…the winner of tonight’s debate is… (cue fanfare, drum roll, spotlights) Nick AND Nigel.” (Unless, of course, something goes wrong which is why I, for one, will be watching tonight and next week on BBC2)

Missed any must-reads? Let us know below…

* 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.