The issue on Thursday by Nick Clegg of a challenge to debate publicly Britain’s membership of the EU prior to the euro-elections in May, and its acceptance yesterday by Nigel Farage, has enlivened the torpor of Parliamentary recess week in a way few could have imagined. So what are the likely driving motivations, as well as the advantages and risks, for all of the likely protagonists?
Clegg, firstly, has the beginnings of overt internal LibDem unease over his leadership to try and head off. Not only was it found wanting over ineffective and hesitant handling of the Rennard and Hancock sex scandals: both their polling and by-election numbers, reflecting their big loss of electoral support because of both their perceived betrayal over tuition fees and coalition co-habitation with the Tories, look very ominous. An MEP wipeout at the EU Parliament elections of 22 May really isn’t at all impossible.
At the domestic political level, remember, about 6% of Ed Miliband’s 35% strategy, so called because that’s the vote share he reckons will be just enough, given the inbuilt advantage to Labour of unreformed constituency boundaries (courtesy of Clegg’s LibDems), to scrape him into a House of Commons majority and the PM’s study in 10 Downing Street, is made up of left-leaning LibDems disaffected with Clegg and coalition.
Party President, the distinctly left-leaning Tim Farron, is on manoeuvres. How else to explain his Thursday article in The Times musing openly about that MEP wipeout in May being possible? Meanwhile the LibDems’ resident curmudgeon, Vince Cable still grumbles away in the background, despite having been firmly put back in his box at last September’s party conference.
Clegg’s received two substantial rebuffs, too, in the past week. Firstly, the LibDems’ utterly abysmal performance in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election, where they were forced into the indignity of demanding a recount just to try and save their deposit. And second, his overtures to Labour, hinting at willingness to go into coalition with them in the event of Labour being the largest party in a hung parliament after the 2015 General Election, were fairly brutally dismissed.
The conventional wisdom is that Clegg’s safe as Leader until 2015: I’m not so sure. But even if he is, that’s not likely to deter the internal mutterings of dissent and positioning, only 15 months away from a possible leasdership contest. If the euro-election MEP wipeout materialises, and the prospects for a much-diminished LibDem presence in the House of Commons after 2015 get no better, the in-fighting will start in earnest. And no-one, but no-one, does internal in-fighting like the LibDems. They will fight like the proverbial ferrets in a sack.
So it’s very arguable that Clegg’s EU debate challenge to Farage owes as much to protecting himself from LibDem leadership challenges until a nice, comfortable, well-remunerated EU sinecure comes up post-2015, as it does to an ostensible desire to debate the case for Britain’s membership of the EU with UKIP. A desire which, too, is somewhat odd, to say the least, from the party that promised an EU Referendum in its 2010 General Election manifesto, only to oppose it at every opportunity ever since. Was there, in fact, an element of desperation at work?
So much for the motivation – what are the upsides and downsides? Well, challenging Farage to an EU debate, and visibly cleaving to party’s EU faith even while losing it, may reinforce his pro-EU credentials with a party that has pro-EU fanaticism hard-wired into its DNA. It could complement the now discernable distancing from Coalition partners and policies that is going on, transparently designed to appeal to the left-leaning defectors. Added to that, Clegg, although a poor House of Commons performer, can come across as quite good in a TV debate, as we saw in 2010. And the EU is a subject dear to his heart.
The risk, however, is that he could further weaken his own position. If Farage has the discipline, not always evident, sadly, to exploit the talent at his disposal, marshal his arguments and facts properly, and deploy them effectively, Clegg could be destroyed.
For Nigel Farage, used to demanding but being denied TV debate, Clegg’s challenge, although a surprise, must on reflection have been welcome. It’s equivalent to granting a full-length party political broadcast, something which he surely could not have imagined. The delay in replying, and its extension of the invitation to David Cameron and Ed Miliband, has been quite shrewd.
Firstly, that extension reinforces in the public mind the idea that Britain is now a four-party polity. Secondly, it projects Farage as a main party leader, alongside and equivalent in political significance to, the other three. Thirdly, it puts Cameron and Miliband on the back foot, forcing them to respond.
Farage here has the opportunity to lock up either an outright victory or very close second place indeed in the May EU Parliament elections, and establish a base from which to mount a determined assault in 2015. In this he starts with one huge psychological advantage – the UK is now more EU-sceptic than for many, many years, and advancing arguments that align with the audience’s priors is far less of a challenge than going against the grain of public opinion, which will be Clegg’s handicap.
Farage, when he resists the temptation to play excessively to the gallery or be led off down argumental cul-de-sacs, is a formidable debater, and the UKIP team has been hugely strengthened by the arrival of the Daily Express’ Patrick O’Flynn as Communications Director. But getting sidetracked into an argument over diverting foreign aid in the recent floods, instead of honing in relentlessly on the pivotal role in creating the disaster played by remotely-decided EU Directives, was a tactical error, and it’s important this isn’t repeated.
Farage needs to resist, too the temptation to allow the debate to get focussed exclusively, or even principally, on the economic aspects of EU membership. Firstly, it shortens the attention span of the average viewer, and trading rival claims and data doesn’t allow an argument to be won in the eyes of the undecided.
Like Sun Tzu in “The Art Of War” – “the wise general never fights a battle on ground of the enemy’s choosing” – Farage will need to bring the argument back, again and again if necessary, to the EU’s glaring democratic deficit, the inherent, and deliberately so, anti-democratic nature of the EU, the percentage of the laws that govern us which are not made in our own directly-elected legislature, and the effective disenfranchisement of the ordinary voter by the Brussels apparat. “Who should decide our laws?”, and “Have you been asked for your consent to unrestricted mass immigration” are themes that resonate far, far deeper than the percentage of our exports.
If Farage can succeed in this, the upside is huge. The cause of reclaiming our nation-state sovereignty will have been significantly advanced, and the cause of those who wish to dilute it further seriously damaged.
What, then, of the two main parties? The course of the Cameroon-Tory politico-commentariat reaction to Clegg’s challenge to Farage has been instructive. The initial thrust of those two impeccably on-message retailers of Cameroon opinion, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, was to pooh-pooh the prospect of Farage accepting. Even after his acceptance yesterday morning, the latter’s Isabel Hardman was still sort of implying that he’d been forced into it.
For Cameron, this development is tricky. He repeatedly insists that staying in the EU is in the UK’s interests and would campaign for it, whatever the cost, even to the extent of that infamous interview with El Pais, confirming he would not want to honour an Out vote in a EU Referendum. So how can he refuse an invitation to debate the proposition?
If he takes part, and argues against Farage, how are EU-sceptic Tory waverers/doubters going to react to the sight of Cameron backing Clegg & the LibDems against Farage and in favour of the EU? But if Cameron enters the debate & ends up countering and arguing against Clegg’s visceral pro-EU position, what does that do, both to his EU-phile metro-liberal “moderniser” base and to Coalition harmony for the 15 months till the 2015 election?
If Cameron does the debate, therefore, he risks splitting both his Coalition and his Party. But if he declines, he risks looking afraid to debate the EU by which he sets such store, with a party that he affects to dismiss as a mere irritant at best and a collection of swivel-eyed fruitcakes at worst. And this is before the risk of his “re-negotiate and referendum in 2017” tactic being demolished and exposed for the sham that it is. This is the stuff of which ulcers are made.
What about Labour’s participation? The risk for Miliband is a Farage ruthlessly hammering home that Labour was vehemently opposed to EU membership until the late 1980’s, only to reverse its position when Jacques Delors addressed the TUC Conferecne and promised them that all the Leftish, union-friendly, social-democratic employment legislation repealed by Thatcher could be reimposed on the UK, irrespective of democratic consent, via the EU.
Would Miliband be prepared or able to counter the charge that Labour’s enthusiasm for the EU stems mainly from being able to use it to foist on the UK economy measures which it could hardly ever implement electorally? Or that the EU’s attraction for Labour is its similarly socialistic nature?
The advantage for Miliband is the possibility of remaining comparatively aloof from the fray, while Farage focussed his arguments on Cameron. He could benefit from stressing that Labour is the most united of the two main parties, and that the LibDems, although united on the EU, are almost certainly going to be a much smaller Parliamentary presence after 2015, so therefore of minimal consequence.
At the time of writing, the tactic of the Tories appears to be to try amd arrange a separate head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband, on the basis that they will be the main contestants in 2015, and allow the LibDems and UKIP to go ahead with their own debate.
This avoids the wider debate risks to Cameron, possibly, but it contains two disadvantages: as both the Cameroons and Labour favour EU membership, their “debate” would have all the attraction of watching two bald men argue over the optimum number of teeth on a comb – and it does nothing to neutralise a Farage accusation that Cameron is unprepared to debate the UK’s EU membership with the only party committed to ending it.
So: for all four party leaders, potential gains, but potential disaster too. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks.