The debate political hacks were waiting for, Clegg Vs Farage on EU membership treated viewers and listeners to a spectacle generating more heat than light. Both sides were in combative mood. Farage playing the ‘I’m a real man’ act, not part of the ‘Westminster bubble’, ‘I feel the pain of ordinary hard-working people’. Whilst Clegg presented himself as a numbers man ready to undermine UKIP hyperbole on immigration and champion common sense liberal values over political scaremongering. Political pundits and pollsters now begin the work of chewing over the audience response. So who won it? Well there are no losers. Both win, some polls place Farage ahead but Clegg probably doesn’t mind very much. A closer look at Clegg’s strategy shows us that he is not after the Farage vote, like Paltrow, Clegg is going through a conscious uncoupling of his own.
Firstly, Clegg knows the election that really counts for him is the 2015 general election. At the EU elections UKIP will pick up the anti-EU, anti-immigration vote, largely damaging the Conservative and Labour working class vote. He knows he isn’t going to change that, indeed he positively likes it. The more Conservatives and Labour reduce their share of the vote the better for him. As leader of the third party, he can only really stay successful as long as there remains a hung parliament, so any reduction of the vote share of the other two keeps him in the game.
Secondly, Clegg knows he is unpopular over his decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives. Too many voters blame the Liberals for the coalition’s failures. In actual fact Clegg doesn’t care too much about all voters. He cares about his base. If he is to stay alive beyond 2015 he needs his own voters to come out and vote Liberal to return a deciding minority of seats. At the moment they are not convinced and the liberal vote may move to Labour unless he proves he champions liberal values. Hence the key themes in the debate, a positive commitment to immigration, internationalism, gay marriage and the EU. These are all liberal themes that go down well with liberal voters. In the coming year Clegg will incessantly give the same message to convince his voters to vote Lib Dem.
Thirdly, Clegg is well aware that in 2015 if his strategy pulls off he will be in Downing Street for another 5 years. A hung parliament will place him back by the side of the PM, most probably a Labour PM. So the process of conscious uncoupling begins, four years after the rose garden ceremony, Clegg is looking for an amicable separation from the Conservatives. Already Clegg has made overtures to leading Labour politicians, and no doubt there will be more to come.
Whether Labour or the Conservatives get the highest number of seats in the next election, political pundits don’t know. But what seems to be clear is Clegg is here to stay.
Watch the debate here