Never mind the arguments, the body language said it all at the EU debate last night. Nigel Farage was relaxed, smiley and upbeat. Nick Clegg had a solemn and rather shifty air. He looked like a plain clothes undertaker handing out business cards in Casualty.

Power has enclosed him in a layer of pomposity and self-righteousness (adding to a pretty thick undercoat, it has to be said), and he admitted no flicker of warmth or humour to his performance. Even his geniality was ice cold. When asked a question by the audience he memorised the questioner’s name and used it repeatedly during his answer. Where did he get that trick? The Child Groomer’s Handbook?

Farage flipped the referendum issue on its head and asked if we would choose to join the EU today. And the two leaders clashed over the nature of that Union. Clegg regards it as the world’s largest economy and a vital trading ally. To Farage it’s an overburdened monster being dragged towards its grave by a gang of new members that ‘were all trapped behind the iron curtain for years.’ He’d like to welcome skilled migrants from India and New Zealand, ‘but we have to say no because we need to leave room for the 4,000 a week coming from southern and eastern Europe.’

Clegg was keen to erase the impression that Brussels constantly sticks its snout in our domestic affairs. Only seven percent of Britain’s statutes, he said, originate from the EU.

‘What are you on about?’ snorted Farage. ‘Gordon Brown said half our laws are made in Brussels.’ Clegg repeated his seven percent figure and claimed no less a source than ‘the House of Commons library’. He made it sound like the Dead Sea scrolls.

Like most EU lifers, Clegg regards the Treaty of Rome as the Garden of Eden. Nothing existed before its creation. His incomplete grasp of history was exposed as he delivered a brief advertisement for the European Arrest Warrant which, he said, has protected us from ‘149 murderers’. Farage pointed out that Interpol has been in business since 1923 and that our first extradition treaty dates from 1147. In any case, he added, the present EU rules are dysfunctional. We can’t deport a mafia boss because the jails receiving him in Italy aren’t cosy enough for convicted gangsters.

Ever the patrician, Clegg didn’t deign to look at Farage, except when he held up a purple leaflet from the Eastleigh by-election. Ukip had claimed that 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians were about to mob our dole-offices. Not true, scolded Clegg. There aren’t 29 million people in Romania and Bulgaria.
‘Because two million have already left,’ said Farage.

Clegg is too canny an operator to rule out a referendum entirely. He tried to make capital from his assertion that a vote is on its way, ‘when new powers are passed to Brussels. That is your right. We’ve guaranteed it in law.’ He kept repeating this vow as if it were a special treat for those in the front row who behave themselves all term.

He appears not to realise how severely his tuition fee head-stand damaged his reputation. It affects the rest of his party too. A ‘Lib Dem guarantee’ is about as useful as a cling-film parachute.

Farage edged it last night without quite delivering a knockout blow. He had one excellent Clegg-clobbering soundbite – ‘He doesn’t think Britain is good enough’ – which combines patriotism and self-reliance with a subtle hint that the EU is a nest of Vichyist traitors.

He needs to make more of that.

Tags: EU, EU referendum, Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage