He asked… and Nigel said yes. The Ukip leader and his party colleagues had whipped Westminster into a state of great suspense in the 24 hours between Nick Clegg’s phone-in on LBC and Nigel Farage’s own appearance on the station. And Farage took his time to say ‘yes’ to the Lib Dem leader’s challenge to a live debate on the EU ahead of the European elections. He said:
‘I nearly choked on my bacon roll when I heard Nick Clegg say he wanted to have a debate about the big European question because this was the guy three years ago advocating an in/out referendum who now says there shouldn’t be a referendum, but now wants a debate so he’s all over the place.
‘I’ve thought about this overnight and, do you know, the reason I got into politics – because I was working in the City, I was working in the commodities business – and I got involved in politics because I felt on this great question of who governs our country: our own Parliament, by the men and women we elect and send there, or the European Commission and the other institutions in Brussels? [I felt] that we weren’t having a proper talk about this.
‘And I’ve battled on for 20 years. I’ve been laughed at, ridiculed, attacked, but at no point in the 15 years that I’ve now been an MEP, at no point have we ever had a full national debate about the merits or demerits of EU membership. And therefore, when the Deputy Prime Minister says he wants to go public and have a debate with me on this issue, I have absolutely no choice. I’ve got to say yes because we need to have a national debate on what I think is the most important issue this country has faced for hundreds of years in terms of our constitution.’
We still weren’t there. But eventually, he said:
‘So the answer is yes, but with one small caveat. I do really want for the Labour party in the shape of Ed Miliband and the Conservative party in the shape of the Prime Minister to join this debate as well.’
He later clarified that the refusal of Miliband and Cameron wouldn’t derail the debate. It’s the right decision for Farage to say yes, not just because turning down Clegg would have made him look like a bit of a scaredy-pants. Debating the Lib Dem leader is also much better for Farage than debating Cameron because the PM can argue that his party, which has a realistic chance of governing in 2015, has already promised an EU referendum. Farage and Clegg are pitching to completely different voters, so both will come away from the debate feeling as though they’ve got what they wanted from it.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.