This week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went in to the second of his two televised debates with Nigel Farage on Europe, presenting himself as “head of a movement to stop the Ukip leader”, says Patrick Wintour in The Guardian.
Since last week’s debate, from which Farage emerged the clear winner by 57% to 36%, according to YouGov, Ukip membership has “surged past 35,000”.
The Lib Dems are now sending out pamphlets for May’s European elections showing Clegg as the “courageous” man who is trying to stop Farage. The Lib Dems have to raise their share of the vote by around three points in the elections to avoid a “wipeout in terms of seats”.
Clegg may have lost last week’s debate, but he has made a “plucky start”, says the FT. It has been years since a high-profile politician made a “sustained and full-throated argument” for the pro-Europe camp. David Cameron indulges his party’s Europhobia. Ed Miliband is pro-European but, “with an eye on the polls, tends not to shout about it”.
In the business world too, there has been a reluctance to speak up in the wake of the eurozone crisis. This leaves the eurosceptic field clear for the likes of Ukip. If Britons are going to vote in Cameron’s promised referendum in 2017, then the pro-European argument must be made.
Clegg itemised the advantages: access to the world’s largest single market; international clout; the capacity to fight cross-border problems; the right to live and work within the EU; and the “sheer risk and uncertainty of leaving”. Populists prosper when unchallenged by mainstream politicians.
Perhaps because Clegg has so little to lose, he is happier than most to get his hands dirty. Good for him.
The small shift in opinion against EU membership after the first debate was disappointing for a pro-EU paper, says The Independent. Yet the debate was welcome. It was, agrees The Times. The British public has a huge appetite for “live, robust debate”, yet politicians are scared of saying anything interesting in case it affects their electoral prospects. When Clegg challenged Farage, neither thought he had anything to lose.
Clegg hopes to gain simply from putting the pro-European case to a “deeply sceptical electorate”; Farage from “being seen to play with the big boys”. Debates like this could usefully be held on subjects from immigration to foreign policy.
How depressing then that the “mood music suggests” there will be no repeat of the TV debates of the 2010 election in 2015. They are just what Britain needs to “exorcise the spirit of apathy”.