When I first heard that Nick Clegg had asked Nigel Farage for a debate on EU issues, I was (as they say) gob-smacked. Turkeys voting for Christmas. A Clegg death-wish. A boy sent to do a man’s job.
I’ve debated with Clegg myself. I’m sure his style would go down a treat in the Senior Common Room at his old college, or in the corridors of the Berlaymont building in Brussels where Clegg once served on the staff of Commissioner Leon Brittan. But to go up voluntarily against a sharp, street-smart operator like Farage — is that foolhardy? Or downright suicidal?
I’d have rushed out to place a bet on Nigel — except that I don’t think I’ll find any bookies willing to offer odds.
I must confess that I had a slight concern that a Farage/Clegg debate without Cameron and Miliband might look a bit like a second-team event, while the important folk got on with running the country, and indeed that’s the way that Downing Street has tried to spin it. But the fact is that the Farage/Clegg fixture will be a huge media-fest. It will arguably be the first high-profile debate in which voters genuinely get to hear the arguments, and as such it will be a huge boost to the sceptic cause. The very absence of Cameron and Miliband will leave them looking curiously disengaged from the Euro-election campaign.
Clegg will no doubt list all the hoary chestnuts of the Europhile camp. Three-and-a-half-million British jobs depend on our EU membership. We need to be in the EU for trade. We have more clout as part of a larger entity. Outside the EU, Britain will be isolated and marginalised. And Farage will shoot them down in flames, one-by-one. He will paint a positive picture of the huge opportunities awaiting an independent Britain. The return of freedom and democracy will be an enormous boost for our economy.
I don’t imagine for a moment that every voter, going into the voting booth on May 22nd, will remember the whole debate point-by-point. But every time they hear those specious pro-Brussels arguments, they’ll remember that Nigel shot them down in a thoroughly convincing way. They will be reassured. And they will vote UKIP.
There are two essential reasons why Clegg is on to a loser. Firstly, in terms of debating skills, he just ain’t that good. It will be the earnest apprentice against the seasoned professional. And secondly, Clegg is simply wrong on the issues. The EU is making us poorer, and less democratic, and less free, and Farage will leave the viewers in no doubt on that point.
But let’s be positive. By asking for a debate which will have a huge public profile, and which will ensure a genuine airing of the key arguments on Europe, Clegg has done a very great service to his country, and to the cause of freedom and democracy. Sadly for him, he’s also done a great service to the United Kingdom Independence Party. Thanks, Nick.