Of Winners and Losers

27th March, 2014 8:46 am

I’m going to start and end this blog post with things I don’t do very often. Here I’m going to attempt a football metaphor. You know how in the World Cup, before the real final happens, you have another match to determine who came 3rd and who came 4th? Well that was kind of the Clegg Vs Farage vibe at last night’s debate.

Neither man is ever going to be Prime Minister. Despite all the spin from all concerned, I think we can probably all agree on that. But on the other hand, they may both have decisive roles to play at the next general election either as disruptor or king maker.

Farage did not perform as well he has on other platforms. The debate format didn’t really suit him as well as the soundbite culture of Question Time where his bonhomie is carefully parcelled out and measured. Here he sounded almost morose at times – baleful about his difficult life and how little fun he is having. Which is odd, becuase a great deal of his appeal is in convincing us at all times that he is in spirit down the pub having a pint, a fag and a laugh.

Clegg was pretty good presentationally. There was a moment there when the talent that led to Cleggmania in the run up to the 2010 election surfaced from where it has seemingly been long buried. Then one of the questioners mentioned tuition fees and the moment passed. Never has one broken politicians promise come to mean so much.

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I watched the debate in the “Spin room” surrounded by the Westminster press. The sense I got in the room was that Farage was flailing a bit and therefore Clegg was winning. It’s certainly true that Clegg got him on the ropes with some of his dodgy figures. As did moderator Nick Ferrari. He was also looking like a man who was regretting his photo stunt of going to the pub in preparation for the debate as the hour wore on as he became sweatier and more ill at ease.

But the Westminster press and politicians don’t get Farage. That’s his gift. He fails by the rules of the bubble because he doesn’t play the game of the bubble. So it wasn’t a big surprise to me that the public felt he had won the debate according to the YouGov polling. His appeal goes beyond his Euroscepticism to his disdain for the “political class” (cheerfully ignoring just how much he belongs to this himself). In this Clegg was the ideal opponent. Who is more loathed than Clegg? Who more representative of everything the current “a plague on all your houses” mood?

This debate will – sadly – change little in our dialogue over Europe. But it will have a lasting effect. Firstly, I believe it has made the leaders debates much, much more likely. Cameron will find it hard to back out of these now. Equally, it probably makes it easier for these to be true debates between the two men who do have a shot of being in Number 10 when the dust has settled. Clegg can keep his losers debate with the man he is vying for 3rd place with. At the election, the real choice before the country is Labour or the Tories. And that’s the debate the country (who chose this choice when we so decisively rejected AV) should get.

I said I would end with something I don’t do often just as I started. I am going to praise Clegg. Yes, he was on the defensive most of the time, yes, he’s Nick Bloody Clegg of the Liberal Bloody Democrats but it was genuinely refreshing to hear a senior politician making and making well the case for Britain’s continued role in Europe. It was a hard job. Probably not one for someone as unpopular as Clegg. I doubt he won many converts in this singular outing. But it is a case we hear far too seldom and usually with far too many caveats. He made a substantial argument well. He deserves praise for doing so.

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