Kudos to Nick Clegg and his team, including his director of strategy Ryan Coetzee. The gambit of issuing a personal challenge to Nigel Farage to debate Nick on Europe has been accepted not only by the Ukip leader, but also now by the media. As Caron Lindsay reported here this morning – #NickvNigel – We have a date and #NickvNigel: We have 2 dates – any more for the Tour? – the two leaders will face-off both on TV and on radio within the next month.
Though the stakes are high for both – any live debate has the potential for a gaffe or ‘mis-speak’ – in reality neither has much to lose. True, the debate won’t be prime time in the way the three 2010 debates were, but they will still be treated by the media as major events.
For Farage, that’s a welcome profile boost. He may seem ubiquitous to those of us who follow politics closely, but he is the least well-known among the general public: one-third of voters have no opinion about him, according to Ipsos-Mori’s leadership tracking poll.
For Clegg, the debates achieve two things. First, a national platform to make the positive pro-European case that the Lib Dems are ‘The party of IN’. Note the definite article there: implicit within the ‘the’ is the point that only the Lib Dems have the cojones to make that case, with both Cameron and Miliband staying aloof (sensibly, from their perspective, but still).
Secondly, the debate will help frame the European elections in exactly the way Clegg wants: as a direct choice between the pro-European Lib Dems and isolationist Ukip. As I pointed out in my ConservativeHome column, ‘Farage is a useful enemy, a clear and present danger who may yet galvanise the one-third of voters who want the UK to remain within the EU to consider casting their vote for the Lib Dems on 22nd May – a new kind of protest vote.’
When the debates take place, all sorts of progressive voters who have taken pleasure in damning the Lib Dem leader for every possible Coalition mistake (perceived or actual) will find themselves – perhaps to their discomfort and embarrassment – cheering him on and agreeing with Nick once again. And maybe not just pro-European voters either. Here’s Jeremy Cliffe in this week’s Economist:
Strangely, strategists also hope that this self-styled “party of in” could attract Eurosceptic voters as well as Europhile ones. The party’s big problem, according to this logic, is not that its policies are unpopular but that U-turning on pledges (most notably a commitment to axe university tuition fees) has made it seem spineless and phoney. But Mr Clegg is authentically, unwaveringly pro-European. He has a Spanish wife, is half-Dutch and worked in Brussels for years. Party bosses hope that seeing him talk passionately about a subject he cares about will win him respect, no matter how unpopular his position.
Mr Clegg may be on to something. Voters rarely engage with the details of parties’ policies (even on Europe, their views depend on the wording of the question). Instead, they vote for politicians who look sincere and seem to know their own minds. Being proudly anti-EU has helped UKIP create that impression. Being unambiguously pro-EU might do the same for the Lib Dems. When viewers watch Mr Clegg and Mr Farage tussle over the merits of EU membership, they will be looking at two men following a similar strategy.
We don’t yet know if the British public will reward this strategy. But – and here I speak as someone who’s on the Eurosceptic wing of the Lib Dems – it’s good to see the party (1) fighting on an unabashedly pro-European platform it genuinely believes in, and (2) basing its campaign strategy on how best to promote its policies, and not the other way around.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.