“I challenged Nigel Farage to a debate because I wanted the British people to see that there is a very real choice at the upcoming European elections: between the Liberal Democrats as the party of ‘In’ and Ukip as the party of ‘Out”
– Nick Clegg
Oh no you didn’t Nick, you clever man.
Nick Clegg and Nigel Farrage are to hold a television debate about the EU in the run-up to the European elections. Like two shit boxers promoting a fight in which no belts are at stake, they’ll do all they can to generate publicity in an attempt to lure viewers to a debate about an election and an issue that most people don’t care about. And like a heavily publicised boxing match, this bout from which both competitors stand to profit.
Nigel Farage’s prominence owes an awful lot to the BBC’s misguided quest to achieve ‘balance’ on Question Time (Melanie Phillips being a more nauseating symptom of the same disease). The programme will normally look something like this: an MP from the three major parties, a representative of ‘the left’ (an artsy type who knows fuck all about politics is also acceptable), and a representative of ‘the right’ (a member of UKIP, a pompous newspaper hack, or that prick David Starkey). The result is normally a very right-leaning panel containing a cantankerous Little-Englander, two speakers who are in a Tory-led government together and a Labour drone whose views, when they are distinguishable from those of the government, never stray from the swing-vote center. Add the token lefty and you’ve got a panel that would appear ‘balanced’ when plotted on a left-right spectrum where Lib Dems are the middle, but is massively skewed to the right. This week they had in Alexander Nekrasov to give the Russian perspective on Ukraine, and pretty-much did without a leftist voice; the closest thing being Amada Platell- former New Labour adviser- who now writes a Daily Mail linkbait column dedicated to flimflam.
Anyway, the point is that Farage kept getting invited back onto Question Time because they always strive to achieve their flawed ‘balance’ which requires someone to the right of the Tories, and because he played well to the audience. Nigel Farage is able to present himself as a ‘straight talker’ and something of a rebel in an era of clean-living, interchangeable, party leaders who circumlocute every awkward question. He also is able to appear ‘one of us’ while still satisfying the English instinct to elect one’s social superiors. His comment in the lead-up to this debate was telling: ‘I don’t believe in being over-prepared’. The format suits Farage and will allow him to attempt to woo voters with his apparently unrehearsed and jovial style, the same tactic that his propelled him, via Question Time, into a position that now sees him called out by the Deputy Prime Minister for a televised debate.
The fact that it was Nick Clegg who gestured at Farage to ‘come ahead’ is significant: this debate represents a very clever piece of political strategizng on his part. He too has done well appearing on televised debates, upstaging Cameron and Brown in those dedicated to the 2010 election. Then, the dynamics suited him; he was the reasoned voice of honesty stationed between the other two bitter and untrustworthy rivals, both of whom were eager to ‘agree with Nick’. Clegg, like Farage does on Question Time, was able to stand outside the political sandpit, which always helps in an era of almost universal contempt for politicians. Now that he’s spent a few years in government and has thus been exposed as another Westminster knave, he will be unable to present this front in a debate with Farage. So has he made a mistake by proposing a debate with an opponent whose popularity is built on differentiating himself from Clegg’s ilk?
Quite the contrary. Clegg’s scheme is subtle: this is a debate he can’t lose, even if he does. The debate is a chance for Clegg to position himself to the left of the Tories, which is something the Lib Dems have been increasingly eager to do as next general election appraoches. Having facilitated the imposition of a right-wing agenda that people didn’t vote for, the Lib Dems are aware of their image-problem as a party with weak principles and are looking for ways to assert their beliefs. Clegg can get himself on the television and stand for something the Tories don’t.
His coalition colleagues’ position on Europe is confused: the Tory party itself is more eurosceptic than its leaders tend to be, but the recent rise in popularity of Farage’s UKIP is causing tension in their ranks. The xenophobes on the Tory benches can point to their more isolationist rivals and accuse the party leadership of failing to appeal to the swathes of voters heading for UKIP. Clegg sees a chance to inflict further damage on the Tories’ already bloodied right flank by giving Farage such a prominent platform as this debate. The Lib Dems’ share of seats in the next election will depend in part on UKIP’s ability to draw right-wing voters away from the Conservatives. A split in the right-wing vote would serve Nick Clegg’s cause. To that end, the prospect of going into the debate as the established politician with a track-record for Farage to take aim at will be of little concern to him: if Farage does well, UKIP is strengthened, and, as a result, the Lib Dems stand to gain. Clegg knows that Farage excels on television, and he’s happy to offer him another evening on our screens, even at what would appear to be his own expense.
So Nick Clegg, in provoking this debate with Farage has engineered for himself a favourable situation, in whatever happens the Lib Dems stand to gain and the Tories stand to lose. It’s pretty Machiavellian, even for him.
As for the debate itself; it’s going to be shit. Don’t watch it.