Nick v Nigel, Round 2: My second thoughts

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

clegg farage lbcLast week, there was no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg won the debate – he quite simply out-classed Nigel Farage, and YouGov’s poll showed Labour and Lib Dem voters agreed (though not Tory and Ukip voters).

This week, it was much more evenly matched. The early part belonged to Nick. With the focus on the Ukip leader’s praise for Vladimir Putin as a “brilliant operator”, Nigel Farage was always going to be on the back-foot. He was, and Nick was able successfully to claim the calm (but yes, also passionate) high ground, portraying him as something of a fantasist, “The party of Putin”. But however deluded Nigel Farage’s views on Russian tyrants are, they are unlikely to be the deciding issue in the elections.

Probably Nick Clegg’s most successful line was about half-way through the debate: “I like modern Britain, Nigel Farage doesn’t.” Crisp, clear, direct – and pretty accurate, too. This is the dividing line for much of the Europe debate: whether you want Britain to be open and engaged, or closed and isolationist.

In the second half, though, Nigel Farage moved up a gear. Looking far calmer (and less sweaty) than last week, he unashamedly pitched himself as the populist politician who tells the voters exactly what they want to hear – the people you can blame for whatever’s wrong in your life are foreigners, Westminster and big business. It’s a pitch that’s worked for plenty of politicians down the years and I suspect it will have worked for Nigel Farage tonight.

Nick Clegg ended up looking too much like he was defending the status quo, summed up by his response to the question “What do you think the EU will look like in 10 years’ time” – “I think it will look pretty similar”. If ever there was a question sitting up to hit by pro-European reformer (which is what Nick Clegg is) that was it.

Add that to the tired jokes (sample “Nigel Farage probably wants WG Grace to open the batting”) and Nick’s peculiar obsession with explaining the distinction between primary and secondary legislation to justify his (quite correct) point that only 7% of laws are made by the EU, and it felt like he was grateful for it all to be over. To be fair, his closing pitch was well-crafted and earned warm audience applause.

Neither of the two debates will have changed many minds. That wasn’t really ever their point. For Nick Clegg it was a case of wanting (and needing) to lead the pro-European campaign to galvanise the Lib Dem campaign. For Nigel Farage it was a case of grabbing the publicity. Both have emerged winners on their own terms – but tonight Nigel was probably a little bit more of a winner than Nick.

* 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.