I understand that Nick Clegg is to challenge Nigel Farage to a debate on Britain’s EU membership ahead of the European Elections this May. The Liberal Democrat leader will issue this challenge imminently.
Clegg’s decision to challenge Farage to a debate is all part of his party’s effort to try and turn the European Elections into a contest between the Liberal Democrats, championing In, and Ukip, who are for out. Those close to Clegg hope that a head to head debate between these two will highlight this contrast. They alos expect that it will put pressure on the Tories and Labour to be clearer about where they stand on the European Question.
Nigel Farage has little choice but to accept Clegg’s challenge. Ukip has long argued that the political establishment is running scared of it. But if Farage refused to debate the deputy Prime Minister, it would like he was running scared of Nick Clegg.
But this strategy is not without its risks for Clegg. Farage is a skilled verbal pugilist and is bound to land some blows. Also, a Clegg, Farage debate will put the two men on an equal footing. Up against the Ukip leader, Clegg won’t be able to stand on his deputy Prime Ministerial dignity.
Clegg versus Farage will be a fascinating political event. If Farage’s case for leaving the EU can stand up to Clegg’s factual assault, it will be vastly strengthened. Equally, if Clegg can puncture the Ukip balloon, he’ll be able to credibly claim that he is the guarantor of the centre ground in British politics. But, I suspect, that both men could end up winning from this debate. Farage’s performance will delight his base and having Clegg as the face of staying in Europe will help him with Euro-sceptic Tory and Labour voters. While Clegg taking on Farage will delight his own activists, who despise Farage, and bolster his claim to be the voice of moderation in British politics.