Most commentators agreed that Nigel Farage won round one of the Clegg vs Farage debates – if only on points. The UKIP leader was able to convey a clear message that the UK is marginalised in the EU and largely unable to influence policy, both strong themes in British public opinion. He also tapped into concerns about immigration from poorer member states.
On the other hand, he looked very uncomfortable when challenged on some of his claims about the scale of immigration and the British contribution to the EU budget, and appeared too intransigent in his approach to EU legislation as an acting MEP. The audience’s reaction to his attempt to explain his wife’s party salary suggested this was a weak spot which Clegg could exploit further.
Where both leaders succeeded was in putting the EU on the front page. Effectively, the head-to-head between the pro-EU Liberal Democrat leader and the Eurosceptic frontman has started a “phoney” referendum campaign, even in the absence of a referendum. This alone shows the extent to which UKIP now sets the agenda in British politics.
Where this will leave voters is another question entirely. The prospect of a referendum will be determined either by the outcome of the 2015 general election or the negotiation of a new EU treaty, which itself would take at least a couple of years, and which is highly unlikely in the current political and economic climate. The earliest scenario would be for a referendum, following a Conservative victory in 2015, in 2017.
The European Parliament elections in May will provide a platform for UKIP’s anti-EU campaign, and the European institutions are expecting a good result for Farage’s party, just as they are braced for a rise in Eurosceptic and anti-establishment party support across European countries. Farage’s first debate performance will have mobilised his supporters and may have swung a few extra voters among the sizeable number of British citizens who feel ill-informed and ready to be persuaded one way or another.
In the orange corner
Whether Clegg did enough in round one to swing undecided voters is more difficult to gauge. His own political capital is low, and the pro-EU arguments he used in the first debate have some weaknesses. For instance, it is difficult to mobilise voters on the basis of a counter-factual like the three million jobs which Clegg said would be lost if Britain were to leave the EU, since this clearly cannot be fully verified.
The first debate and the commentary on it also showed how the EU’s impact on British legislation is as much a matter of uncertainty as controversy. Farage has argued for some years that around 75% of British legislation comes from the EU, which is in line with claims made by the European Commission, but a long way from the 7% which Nick Clegg put forward. After the debate, much was made of the 2010 House of Commons research note which Clegg cited. It explains we cannot put a precise figure on the percentage of British legislative instruments coming from the EU, and says it is somewhere between 15% and 50%, varying significantly between policy sectors.
For all that Farage was given a tentative win, and Clegg managed to avoid a major slip, round one did little more than raise the issues and lay out the battle lines. Both debaters must use round two to take the argument further.