Clegg v Farage: why Nick needs Nigel

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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40 Comments

  • adrian mcleay 20th Feb '14 - 2:21pm

    LBC is running a poll on who would win an in/out debate – Nigel or Nick. Farage was well ahead initially but when I voted a few minutes ago it was 50/50. here’s the link so get voting for Nick http://www.lbc.co.uk/clegg-challenges-farage-to-inout-eu-debate-86300

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Feb '14 - 2:27pm

    Is this the battle for the wooden spoon? It makes me think about leaving politics until a party more serious about governing exists.

  • Wow! Is Nick gambling on Farage declining his invitation? If not, he is living dangerously.

    Nick must be very careful If Farage accepts this invitation because it could backfire spectacularly. Our party is diametrically opposed to Farage and any confrontation could end up in a massive public scrap.

    Who wins? Farage believes passionately in his position and he knows his facts. Nick is not going to talk him down easily. The problem is Farage could make Nick’s passion for the EU look a bit pathetic and I’m not sure that would improve our election chances.

    I think it is better to oppose UKIP’s big guns from a distance rather than face enemy fire directly across the front-line.

  • The LBC poll is a bit daft. It will largely be a proxy for “who do you agree with, Nick or Nigel?”. On another thread it is argued that a good pro-European case will “blow the phobes away”, but that might only be true for a neutral audience. Europe and Nick’s ratings will tend to produce a sceptical audience, so this exchange – if it ever happens – will only work if it isn’t the only event of the kind.

  • Hard to see how Nick can come out of this looking liberal or democratic.

  • Mason Cartwright 20th Feb '14 - 7:15pm

    Much as I agree with Clegg on Europe he has burned his platform.

    He did not foresee this which means he is dangerous and irresponsible.

  • I would enjoy seeing this very much. I’m already enjoying watching Nigel squirm.

  • Bill Chapman 20th Feb '14 - 8:58pm

    Eddie Sammon is right. This look like a squabble between two parties of protest. And all the time Labour remains ahead in the polls.

  • Well, I did suggest that there should be a televised debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, see my comment under the Wythenshaw article, duplicated here, quote:

    ‘Joe King 16th Feb ’14 – 9:48pm

    If Nick Clegg really can tackle Farage, it would go a long way to turning around his own standing, improve our fortunes as a party, and stop the anti-EU rhetoric once and for all. Nick does need to be well briefed before such an encounter. How about a televised debate, just the two of them, ahead of the European election? Cameron wants to ignore Farage, so trying to organise a foursome with Ed Miliband too may not be possible. A televised debate ‘in’ vs ‘out’ would be interesting to watch. It would boost our morale too if Nick lands a few punches.’

    And David-1 agreed with my suggestion.

    My great concern is that Nick will HAVE to be extremely well briefed. He must also stop basing our arguments on some flimsy research, the 3 million jobs at stake if we leave the EU is particularly weak. The professor who wrote the original research paper is stating that it is an over simplification to suggest that 3 million jobs would be lost if we left the EU.

    This debate is going to be quite a risky gamble. In order to minimise the risk that Farage will have us for breakfast, can we please also persuade David Cameron and Ed Miliband to take part? At least then we can dilute the impact on our party if Farage is particularly on form, and if Nick is having a bad day.

    David Cameron needs to understand that we can make the remaining term of the coalition somewhat unproductive if he does not co-operate with helping us out on this matter.

    I am quite astonished that this suggestion of mine has been taken up so rapidly – I only made it four days ago.

    I do indeed play the devil’s advocate from time to time in my comments, to stir up debate. Hopefully on occasion fellow members do take heed of what I write when I am being more serious. I am VERY serious about the 3 million jobs claim, we need to drop it, or face annihilation in the elections when the electorate see how flimsy this claim really is.

  • @Theresa-1 – “Farage believes passionately in his position and he knows his facts.”

    Farage may believe passionately in his position but he spoofs on the facts.

    For instance, according to him, EU regulation is an unnecessary expense and leaving would save a ton of money when the UK scraps it all. Sounds good when first heard.

    But, those EU regulations cover food & medicine safety. Who in their right mind wants a situation where we have no safety regulation in those areas? So, what “great savings” would we make in those areas and at what cost?

    We have already had horse burgers with abuses of current regulations. Imagine the horrors we’d have with a UKIP “leave it to food companies to decide food safety for us” attitude.

  • If we accept that Cameron will be the one who is too chicken to join in this debate, and Miliband will want to stay out of it unless Cameron is in it, what form should the debate take?

    We want to make Farage as uncomfortable as possible during the debate. As I pointed out earlier we need to drop the 3 million jobs claim as it is unraveling as an argument and just makes us look gullible. We need to get another grip hand-hold on Farage, and quickly, if we are to wrestle with him. Otherwise he is likely to slip out of our hands and we will lose, or be perceived as losing.

    What I think we could do is point out how inconsistent the stance of UKIP really is regarding independence for Scotland. How is it possible for UKIP on one hand say that they want the UK to remain as it is with Scotland part of it, and on the other hand that we exit the EU? There is a glaringly obvious inconsistency here, which if we play our cards right will make Farage look stupid. The SNP strange as it may seem, can be our allies in the destruction of UKIP.

    We should therefore have a three way debate on independence generally. Nick Clegg – Alex Salmond – Nigel Farage.
    Can I suggest that each of the three parties should have a proposer and a seconder. In this debate it would make sense for our seconder to be Alistair Carmichael, presumably Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, no idea who UKIP would have as seconder, they seem to lack talent at the top. As much of the debate regarding Scottish and UK independence revolves around money / currency and finance, perhaps UKIP will field their economics spokesman Tim Congdon. He does have all the charisma of a damp rag!

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

    “Debate with”, please. Enough of these Americanisms.

  • Paul in Twickenham 21st Feb '14 - 10:12am

    Farage has accepted the challenge. I am personally not a great fan of the EU and would prefer a looser association of independent nation states than is the general position of the Lib Dems. But if he presents the Lib Dems as “critical friends” to Brussels then I would expect Mr Clegg to punch above the party’s (admittdely woeful) poll numbers.

    My concern is the gung-ho, groupthink attitude displayed by some here who expect it to be a slam-dunk for Clegg. Mr. Farage is a skillful debater and will be trading his “gut” feelings with Clegg’s “intellectual” argument.

  • Peter Watson 21st Feb '14 - 10:27am

    Polling showed that AV and electoral reform was a popular option before Nick Clegg became its poster child.
    Now he’ll be the face of ‘In Europe’.
    It might be a good time to place a bet on an early exit from the EU and a majority UKIP government in 2015. 🙁

  • So politics least popular leader is going to go head-to-head with it’s (inexplicably) most popular.

    Farage is one of the most odious figures in politics but I suspect he’ll do quite brilliantly in a debate. Quick fire points and populist arguments are easy to make in a debate format but difficult to counter. UKIP’s argument doesn’t stand up under scrutiny but scrutinising arguments is a difficult in a debate format.

    Perhaps Clegg imagines that his performance in the pre-election Debates in 2010 can be repeated. If so, I think he will be sadly disappointed.

  • I’m saddened at the bunch of comments this has thread attracted. Either you are party supporters who should be ashamed to call yourself such or you’re the usual bunch of ill-wishers this site attracts.

    Nick Clegg is a great debater and until now Nigel Farage has got away with his man-down-the-pub-style bluster, but no longer. Farage’s arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny.

    @Peter Watson
    “Polling showed that AV and electoral reform was a popular option before Nick Clegg became its poster child.”

    i.e. before the bone-headed tribal left and right got their hands on it and decided to make it into a vote on “Do we want to scapegoat Nick Clegg for everything that’s wrong with the country?”

  • @Jack “Farage is one of the most odious figures in politics”.

    Please reserve terminology like “odious” for the BNP. Farage is a far cry from Nick Griffin (who is, indeed, “odious”. Actually, I think Farage is quite a likeable and good-natured chap really, it is just that we diametrically oppose his views. They aren’t racist, but we just don’t agree with them. Let’s leave it at that.

    Anyway, Farage has accepted Nick’s challenge. As I said here yesterday, this will be highly “interesting”. So what is Nick going to do next?

  • Peter Watson 21st Feb '14 - 5:28pm

    @RC “i.e. before the bone-headed tribal left and right got their hands on it and decided to make it into a vote on “Do we want to scapegoat Nick Clegg for everything that’s wrong with the country?””
    Exactly that. And now Clegg could do the same for the pro-European cause.

  • @Theresa-1: “Please reserve terminology like “odious” for the BNP. Farage is a far cry from Nick Griffin (who is, indeed, “odious”. Actually, I think Farage is quite a likeable and good-natured chap really, it is just that we diametrically oppose his views. They aren’t racist, but we just don’t agree with them. Let’s leave it at that. ”

    I don’t agree. Farage isn’t merely wrong; he’s the advocate of a rotten view of politics and views that only bigots hold. I don’t mean on Europe where reasonable people can disagree but in his wider actions and views, from his disgraceful behaviour in the EU parliament (‘damp rag’) to his endorsement of homophobic discrimination.

  • Leekliberal 21st Feb '14 - 6:09pm

    @Peter Watson @’“Do we want to scapegoat Nick Clegg for everything that’s wrong with the country?””
    Exactly that. And now Clegg could do the same for the pro-European cause.’ I say that you Peter are yet another grump who can’t see a way forward! We are the underdogs against UKIP and Nick is a very able and informed debater on Europe. Go for it Nick!

  • “I don’t agree. Farage isn’t merely wrong; he’s the advocate of a rotten view of politics and views that only bigots hold.”
    To the Moderators :
    You are OK with the above statement? Bigots?? Is that not offensive?

  • Moderators’ note. There is a grey area here, but since it is quite routine in some wide circles to consider and call UKIP racist and bigoted, and the truth or falsity of this is salient, there needs to be some leeway given to a calm discussion of whether UKIP is in fact racist and bigoted or not. That said, the name-calling should be avoided.

  • Peter Watson 21st Feb '14 - 9:44pm

    @Leekliberal “We are the underdogs against UKIP”
    In 2010 for every UKIP vote we had more than 7. We won 57 seats compared to their 0.
    Is Clegg not one of the reasons we’re now an underdog against UKIP?

  • Farage doesn’t need to win the debate on a rational basis, nor does he even need to win majority support. All he needs to do is to enthuse and expand his core vote.

    Clegg needs to avoid being the butt of Farage’s jokes – which will be difficult. Clegg needs to impress. He won’t do that if he just bangs on about how terrible it might be if we came out of Europe. Farage will just wait until Clegg makes an overclaim, or something that could be presented as an overclaim, and will then calmly declare that Clegg is a scaremonger.

    Clegg needs a broader approach and a bit of Euro-realism, or else he’ll be skewered.

  • If I were Farage, I should begin by quoting the 2009 Lib Dem Euro manifesto to Nick Clegg:
    “Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU. We are the only party confident enough to put the pro-European case to the British people on the big issue facing us – and let the people decide. Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.”

    I’m sure that will be one of the main lines of attack, and that the referendum question is what UKIP are referring to when they say Clegg is “all over the place” on Europe.

    Clegg would do well to have a convincing explanation prepared. I haven’t heard one yet.

  • “@RC “i.e. before the bone-headed tribal left and right got their hands on it and decided to make it into a vote on “Do we want to scapegoat Nick Clegg for everything that’s wrong with the country?””
    Exactly that. And now Clegg could do the same for the pro-European cause.”

    Yes. I do think it’s a good idea for the Lib Dems to adopt an unashamedly pro-European stance, both in principle and in electoral terms. (There must be a wide swath of moderate Tory opinion which finds the anti-Europeanism that Cameron is being dragged into very offputting.)

    Sadly, Clegg being Clegg, he seems to be treating it purely as a political tactic to be exploited for narrow party advantage (which is the reason he tied the party in knots over a referendum in the first place). In particular, he seems to think it’s a good idea to pretend the Labour Party is not really in favour of EU membership. Presumably that has partly been forced on him by this silly “Party of In” slogan, but of course it can only tend to damage the wider pro-European case.

  • In light of today’s remarkable events, I would like to draw attention to the very different ideas of what it means to be European existing in the UK versus the Ukraine.

  • Chris: I have heard of an explanation, however it does not seem to fit the timeline. It is to the effect that this was in the context of the Lisbon Treaty debate and fits into the idea that the time for a referendum is when there is a major change to the EU. Unfortunately, the Treaty had been signed over a year earlier, so it looks as though it was an unupdated policy, but then can you find a better quotation to show that Lib Dems were specifically calling for a referendum? I certainly do not recall any discussion of when such a referendum could be held.

    Of course the “Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU ….” was strictly true, the Party had done exactly that in Westminster, arguing that an In/Out referendum makes more sense than one on a lengthily negotiated treaty. Did you have the impression that Liberal Democrats were promising a referendum at this time? I did not, and in any case the election of MEPs could hardly do anything about a referendum.

    I do not see what is so wrong with the ‘Party of In’, it is certainly better than we are the party of ‘Let’s not say that we are that committed to the EU’. ‘Party of In’ places the party as a polar opposite to UKIP: I do not see how this “can only tend to damage the wider pro-European case”.

    As for Labour, we have heard quite a lot of Europhobic noises from them including shadow spokesman Chuka Ummuni and not a lot that is proEU. Moreover throughout the Blair /Brown era, with the notable exceptions of Peter Hain and Dennis McShane, anti EU commentary was largely undefended: in general it was an issue that they simply did not want to talk about. We Might suspect the influence of Murdoch but it did happen and despite clearly distancing themselves from Murdoch, there has not been any particular attempt to rectify Labour’s stance on the EU from its Murdoch appeasement days.

    I doubt Clegg’s positioning on a number of issues and find his centrist stance disturbing, but of all things I would not doubt his genuine commitment to the EU and internationalism: in fact I find it his most attractive feature; he is at heart a European. Actually it is pity that as a Lib Dem there is very little chance that he would ever be nominated to a post in Brussels, as he would be able to do a very good job there – certainly a lot better than Borroso.

  • Chris, actually rather than respond to all my previous post, I would be much more interested if you could expand on your statement “I do think it’s a good idea for the Lib Dems to adopt an unashamedly pro-European stance”. Obviously I think so too and some of my reasoning is apparent from the previous post, but it would be good to see your angle on it.

  • jbt: ” governing structures that have been accountable and representative for centuries”
    I’m not really sure what to make of your grasp of British history, so you can help me out here by answering the simple question: at what point in time would you say that British “governing structures” became “accountable” and “representative”? Feel free to assign a different date to either claim, if necessary.

  • Regarding my earlier suggestion that there should also be an invitation to Alex Salmond to take part in the UK Independence debate, can I make a suggestion that there should be three initial bouts of debate first, and then the main Clegg – Salmond – Farage debate.

    Debate 1 Clegg – Farage
    Debate 2 Clegg – Salmond
    Debate 3 Farage – Salmond
    Debate 4 Clegg – Salmond – Farage

    Each debate would be live and on a separate evening, so that there is time for each party to fully observe the earlier debates and so inform their choice of arguments for the subsequent debates.

    At the moment, just having a Clegg – Farage debate puts a huge amount of pressure onto Nick to perform on one single occasion. Spreading it over four debates not only reduces the risk, which is something of an existential risk for our party. It also broadens the debate to become an inquiry into independence, inter-dependence, democratic representation, and liberalism versus libertarianism.

    We can gain far more overall by having a three way debate than simply allowing it to be about the narrow question of ‘in’ vs ‘out’ of the EU. If anybody reading this has a direct line to Nick, could they put my suggestion to him please.

  • jbt: If you are under the impression that England’s “governing structures” in 1689 were either accountable or representative, you don’t need training wheels — you need to learn to crawl. As I suspected, you have no grasp of the history of British governance, and are talking stuff; I simply wanted to make sure that you demonstrated that yourself without any help from me.

    As any Liberal Democrat would know, the governments of England, Scotland, and Great Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries were not *accountable* to anybody except the King, and a change of government occurred more reliably with a change of monarch than with a change of parliament. The first government to be forced from office by a Parliamentary vote was that of Lord North, in 1782 — but it was not clear for decades afterward that that would be a precedent.

    In fact, it was not until 1830 that a government fell due to the results of a parliamentary election. At that time, of course, Parliament was not even approximately representative; the system of unequal constituencies and rotten boroughs made elections the tool of a tiny elite. But even after the Reform Act of 1832 (something any liberal ought to know about), fewer than one in twelve adult citizens had the vote; hardly a representative system. Successive acts of Parliament over the course of the 19th century broadened the franchise: but it was not until 1928 that women could vote on the same terms as men.

    Many Liberal Democrats, of course, argue that the present system is far from representative or accountable, in that it systematically denies the supporters of smaller parties a fair share of representation in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them, have been arguing this since at least 1945.

    In short, the notion that British “governing structures” have been either accountable or representative “for centuries” is patent nonsense, and that anyone would think so points to some truly deplorable defects in our system of education.

    To get back to the main issue (at last): the argument jbt was making was that Europe was good for Thee but not for Me; that the British were far too civilised and Christian to require Europeanisation, but it’s good for those heathen barbarians overseas. The mentality that produces such notions — shall we call it ‘British Exceptionalism’ — deserves little comment. Anyone who is not blind to the extraordinary defects of the British system, and the abuses of power and privilege which it encourages, would not dare to adopt such a high and mighty tone with respect to other European nations.

  • jedibeeftrix 23rd Feb '14 - 3:00pm

    “In short, the notion that British “governing structures” have been either accountable or representative “for centuries” is patent nonsense,”

    By the standard of the day, no it was not.

    “The mentality that produces such notions — shall we call it ‘British Exceptionalism’ — deserves little comment.”

    A long and flowery way of saying; I have no useful answer to the following:

    “For the Ukraine it represents the hope of accountable and representative governance, and thus a legitimate political settlement. For the UK, it is a distraction from continuing to maintain governing structures that have been accountable and representative for centuries.”

    “You might want to consider this largely unbroken trend, punctured by one brief period of civil war, that in fact stretches back around 800 years.”

    “Having done so I would then invite to look across the water and from the mish-mash of modern boundaries try and piece apart any ‘nation’ that has not repeatedly suffered periods of totalitarian/authoritrian government where the populace present have not been subject, time after time, to the brutalities of war across their hearth or general tyranny.”

    What is your explanation for your own statement:

    “In light of today’s remarkable events, I would like to draw attention to the very different ideas of what it means to be European existing in the UK versus the Ukraine.”

    For yes, we do indeed have very different ideas, but why?

  • Steve Comer 24th Feb '14 - 7:48am

    I’d actually quite like to see a Guy Verhofstadt – Nigel Farage debate!
    Certainly Guy’s attack on Farage in the European parliament (can be viewed on YouTube) was worth watching!

  • Simon Banks 25th Feb '14 - 4:03pm

    I’m surprised at the cries of worry. We don’t have many Euro-votes to lose, so setting the debate as us versus UKIP is good tactics.

    As for Farage knowing his facts, so on Europe does Nick, and UKIP are vulnerable on the record of the jobsworths they’ve elected to the European Parliament.

    The main risk would be if the fundamentally decent and slightly waffly N Clegg just got boomed out of the debate. But I can’t see even that actually losing us votes.

  • Of course the “Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU ….” was strictly true, the Party had done exactly that in Westminster, arguing that an In/Out referendum makes more sense than one on a lengthily negotiated treaty. Did you have the impression that Liberal Democrats were promising a referendum at this time? I did not, and in any case the election of MEPs could hardly do anything about a referendum.

    I think the statement in the manifesto was deliberately calculated to give people the impression that the Lib Dems were arguing for an in/out referendum as a matter of principle. And I think Clegg made a number of statements during the last parliament that suggested he considered an in/out referendum desirable in itself, not just more desirable than a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. And I think it will only be poetic justice if these shabby tactics come back to bite him in the debate he has now engineered – again for tactical reasons – with Farage.

  • Dafydd Williams 2nd Apr '14 - 6:14pm

    Why does this programme, broadcast in Scotland and Wales as well as England, exclude the leaders of the national parties of those two countries? England Rule OK for the BBC?

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