Well, the first round of the debate is done. The snap YouGov poll conducted immediately after it finished found Farage was the winner by a sizeable margin of 57 per cent to 36 per cent.
There was a fair bit of heat, but enough light to draw out a few points at this stage:
1) It was about votes, not victory
Officially the debate was about Britain’s membership of the EU – a pre-run of an in/out referendum. That was the topic discussed for most of the hour (the odd intervention about same sex marriage aside), but it wasn’t the reason either man turned up.
The main interest for both Farage and Clegg was votes, not victory on the EU issue. Clegg threw down the gauntlet in the first place because his poll numbers had fallen below the number of committed europhiles. Just as he proposed the debate because of the fall in his support to that of a second division party, Farage accepted because his poll performance has risen to that of a second division party.
It was telling that both men ended their summation speeches with an appeal for votes in May – not with an appeal about the EU, the supposed topic at hand.
2) Farage has studied the format, to good effect
Clegg had the advantage of three televised party leader debates under his belt, but Farage (or Patrick O’Flynn, his new spinner) had carefully considered the format. When he won the toss at the start, he opted for Clegg to go first – on the face of it, an uncharacteristically coy move. But he knew that whoever went second on the introductions would go second on the summing up, meaning the decision to let Clegg open proceedings granted the crucial last word to Farage.
3) Clegg’s approach of ignoring Farage didn’t work (so he ditched it)
The Lib Dem leader clearly intended to repeat his performance from 2010 – staring down the camera, talking to the public, rising above the grubby business of arguing with people. He kept it up for the first half of the debate, but in doing so he got a bit of a pasting. Farage seemed more ad lib and more nimble. Clegg realised it, so he changed tack – instead choosing to interrupt Farage just as he brought each point to a close, throwing off his punchlines. It worked better, and dragged him closer to contention in the second half.
4) No amount of experience guarantees you won’t stuff up
Both men are experienced orators – it’s what they do for a living. But they both, at different points, dropped a clanger under pressure. For example, Clegg tried to justify his famous “time for a real referendum on Europe” leaflet with the words “read the small print” – a quote directly from the dodgy car salesman’s handbook, which the audience immediately picked up on. Farage had a similar moment when he told Nick Ferrari that the estimate of the scale of EU law-making “comes from us”, rather than an independent source.
5) Europhiles are addicted to the 3 million jobs lie…
From the outset, Clegg’s mantra was jobs. Initially he used the doom-mongering argument while shying away from uttering the dread number: 3 million. But then he went for it – despite the fact that even the author of the report he was citing has rejected the idea that 3 million jobs rest on EU membership. In reality they rest on trade with the EU, which there’s no reason to believe would stop or even reduce if we were to leave.
6) …but Eurosceptics still suffer the temptation to get bogged down in statistics and technicalities
As with many areas of politics, those who are most interested often know lots of detail which is functionally useless when persuading floating voters. One of Nigel Farage’s strengths in soundbites is communicating in English, rather than parroting statistics, acronyms and technicalities – but this evening he allowed himself to get stuck at times in precisely that trap. Magna Carta is hugely important, but it isn’t going to sway floating voters, for example. Worse, allowing Clegg to call your argument into doubt due to debatable numbers is an unnecessary gift.
7) UKIP’s voting record is a weakness
In Brussels, UKIP MEPs have never paid a huge amount of attention to the process of the EU Parliament. That’s understandable – people voting UKIP aren’t after representatives who are enthusiastic apparatchiks. However, their inattention handed Clegg some free punches against Farage. To pull everyone else up on their behaviour you yourself have to be whiter than white – UKIP’s failure to vote against some EU encroachments or for measures to stymie Brussels’ ambition are a definite weak spot.
8) The referendum will be a question of doubt versus certainty
As I’ve argued since launching the Better Off Out campaign eight years ago, the anti-EU case will only be successful if we can lay out a clear, convincing and attractive vision of life outside the EU. Farage had some successes putting that across (asked how the UK would trade without being part of a bigger bloc, he pointed out that even Iceland strikes its own trade deals successfully) and did best when he was warm about the UK’s potential. But he also faltered at times, retreating into the negativity which condemned euroscepticism to valiant failure for so long. All of us who want to leave the EU must study the way in which the Better Together campaign are using doubt and uncertainty to demolish Alex Salmond – we must avoid the SNP’s fate.
9) Labour voters are a crucial constituency in an in/out referendum
As the YouGov poll showed, UKIPers, Lib Dems and Conservatives are mostly in one camp or another on the EU question already, but the Labour vote is still split. Though Clegg won among Labour voters, he did so only narrowly, and 42 per cent thought Farage was the winner. In that respect, the in/out referendum will be like the AV referendum. Miliband’s weakness on the issue certainly doesn’t threaten to change that.
This complicates the job of choosing our arguments and the question of who should make them when the people finally get a say. Farage undoubtedly appeals to the anti-EU and anti-immigration cores, but does he have the ability to reach into Labour’s current vote (as opposed to Old Labour ex-voters) and win them over? I fear he falls short on that count – and when he strikes a bum, Godfrey Bloom-ish, note it has the capacity to deter those floating voters.
10) These debates turn political logic upside down
The debate brought a certain Alice in Wonderland logic to Westminster. Electorally speaking, a Clegg win would have been most helpful to the Conservatives – taking ex-Lib Dem voters back from Labour. By the same token, a Farage win is most helpful to Labour – taking votes from the Conservatives and helping Miliband into power next year. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, both Clegg and Farage expect to gain at the expense of the two larger parties – each believes they are currently polling below their potential.
Through all that gloom for the Tories and Labour, there may be some sunshine, though – if this establishes a precedent for Second Division, UKIP v Lib Dem, debates, might Cameron and Miliband be able to do a head to head First Division debate next year without the other parties present? Both would much prefer it that way.