John Harris

Journalist & Author

Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage? The Ukip leader must be licking his lips | John Harris

The Lib Dem leader embodies everything Ukip voters take against. Only Clegg could pick himself as the man to turn them round

Fans of ham acting, broken promises and political phone-ins will presumably be delighted that Nick Clegg has insisted he will remain as Lib Dem leader “through the whole of the next parliament” until 2020, whether or not the Lib Dems are part of the next government. Devotees of the absurd, meanwhile, may well be delighted by news that Danny Alexander is reportedly “positioning himself” for a leadership bid at some unspecified point in the future, but let’s park that one.

Fair play to Clegg, perhaps: though opinion polls recurrently show his party bumbling along at around 9%, his quest and that of his colleagues to begin differentiating themselves from the Tories is being energetically pursued, and in moments of weakness one might imagine them avoiding wipeout in 2015, and the leader remaining in post. Or perhaps not: even their own people have acknowledged that they face disaster in next month’s European and local elections, which would cap a run of electoral disasters and thus highlight grim auguries for the general election. You can surely see it coming: the party pushed back into a few West Country redoubts, Clegg summarily sent on his way, and a new job for that proud defender of the orange flame, Tim Farron.

Meanwhile, by way of suggesting that his party is the same principled force it ever was and running towards the sound of gunfire, Clegg has decided to pick a fight with Ukip – and more specifically Nigel Farage. He will debate Britain’s place in Europe with Farage at 7pm on Wednesday 2 April (on BBC2, presumably so as to not to mess with The One Show). And at the Lib Dems’ spring conference over the weekend, he fired some rhetorical buckshot at his new quarry.

An ungenerous, backwards-looking politics has emerged in Britain,” Clegg said. “The politics of blame has found an acceptable face: it wears a big smile and looks like someone you could have a pint with down the pub. So I’m drawing a line in the sand. I am going to defend the tolerant and modern Britain we love.” EU-wise, he said, “the Liberal Democrats are now Britain’s only party of IN”. The block capitals are there in the official transcript: the Lib Dems’ love of Brussels is unabashed that they do not want in, but IN. By way of illustrating all this, one Lib Dem MP was sensibly photographed at the conference in a Farage mask, holding the obligatory pint and fag, apparently so as to illustrate how feeble the party’s latest enemy is. How we laughed, and all that.

There will, obviously, be big problems with all this. Last time Clegg attached himself to a noble cause – electoral reform, remember? – his presence ensured that the issue took its place in a mess of other grievances, about his broken vow on tuition fees, the Lib Dems’ acquiescence in austerity, and his own alleged uselessness. And when it comes to Europe, much the same thing will happen, but on exactly the terms that Ukip would like. In other words, the noise surrounding this debate, not to mention the TV duel, will only partly be about whether Britain should be in Europe or not: the rest of it, one would imagine, will centre on the issue of immigration, both in terms of its links with the EU, and as a public concern that informs just about every other area of policy – and, implicitly or otherwise, the sense a lot of people have that we are governed by a homogeneous, well-heeled, cosseted bunch of politicians, and among the only people who offer any kind of alternative is Farage, complete with his pint and fag.

Now, it’s not like the political class had an extraordinary annual general meeting and appointed Clegg as its new anti-Farage attack dog: with his customary chutzpah, he simply appointed himself to the role. But could you imagine a more perfect embodiment of everything Ukip voters take against?

Actually, I could: Harriet Harman springs to mind. But anyway: it’s worth taking seriously the analysis proffered by the authors of Revolt On The Right, the impressive-looking new book on Ukip, who reckon that Ukip draws heavily on the support of “working-class, white male voters” who “feel left behind by Britain’s rapid economic and social transformation and left out of our political conversation; struggling people who feel like strangers in a society whose ruling elites do not talk like them or value the things which matter to them”. Some of us would argue that they have a point. But even if they don’t, would anyone pick Nick Clegg – Nick Clegg! – to somehow turn them round?

Farage should chuck another few percentage points on his poll rating, it seems to me. And come the big debate, unless his opponent manages to summon up the ghost of Cleggmania, even on the substantive issues, he will do much better than some people would like to think. Like so many modern politicians, Clegg tends to resemble a one-man school play about Tony Blair. He has the same tendency to piety, a similar style of speechifying, and the same habit of briefly acknowledging that a given issue is more complex than he himself sometimes seems to think, before making everything sound blissfully simple. There was a sense of his basic pitch in Sunday’s speech: a rather cringe-inducing tribute to our national character, a brief mention of that fact that the EU “needs reform”, and then a tick-list of why we should stay in: jobs, the fight against climate change, the need to catch international criminals, and the idea that Britain stands “tallest in the world when we stand tall in Brussels, Paris and Berlin”.

Before I wrote this, I sat in my local caff with my customary cup of English breakfast tea (too early for a pint and fag, you understand), and read the latest issue of the Economist. There’s a very good essay in it about the worldwide prospects for democracy, and an eye-catching paragraph about how much the EU has let people down on that score: “The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the Euro elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats …”

And so it goes on. It may be the case that, as Clegg says, an “ungenerous, backwards-looking politics has emerged in Britain”. As it grows in popularity, Farage’s party undoubtedly has all kinds of questions to answer, and it may yet wither in the spotlight. But at the same time, a lot of British people have a keen sense of the kind of oppressive behaviour of which the EU is more than capable, and the associated arguments for Eurosceptism, and even our outright exit. And here is today’s question: is the Lib Dem leader really the man to persuade them otherwise? Well?

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