POLLWATCH: Are we about to experience “Faragemania”?
You can almost, almost, feel the anticipation pulsing
through the Westminster bubble as the breaking news was announced on Wednesday:
the BBC are to host a head-to-head debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage
in April on the UK’s future in Europe.
This is will be an important moment in British politics.
Though it remains to be seen who, if anyone will actually watch it, the debate
will set the tone for the European Parliamentary elections barely a month
later, which will in turn influence the narrative for the General Election next
What impact will it have? The truth is we just don’t
know. The Prime Ministerial debates in 2010 saw Nick Clegg’s personal ratings,
and those of his party rocket immediately following the first debate. Come the
time of the election just a few weeks later however, and the Liberal Democrats
had only increased their vote share by 1 percentage point from 2005 and had in
fact lost a net of 5 seats in the House of Commons.
While the Liberal Democrat performance was doubtless better
than it would have been without the debates, the boost diminished as Election
Day approached. It can be argued though, that without the “Cleggmania”
that followed the debate he would not have been in a position to negotiate for
himself the job of Deputy Prime Minister. His own personal position had been
elevated, he became a nationally known – and very popular – political figure.
However, fastforward a few months later and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
had been hammered in opinion polls having gone into Coalition with the
Conservatives and (shortly afterwards) broken his promise on tuition
fees. The scale and speed of his fall from popularity was perhaps
exacerbated by the unnaturally high position he was enjoying post-debates.
By agreeing to the debate Nick Clegg is risking Nigel Farage
benefitting in the same way he once did. He is elevating the leader of a party
with no MPs that achieved just over 3% of the vote at the General Election to
share a prime-time stage with the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of a
Party that won 23% of the vote four years ago.
Mr Farage is currently a popular, if unscrutinised,
politician. In February, ComRes found that 24% of the public have a favourable
opinion of UKIP, higher than the 17% that are positive about the Liberal
Democrats. Nigel Farage meanwhile is more popular (20% have a favourable
opinion of him) than Nick Clegg (13%), though David Cameron is the most popular
Party leader with 31%.
then Nick Clegg has little to lose in the popularity stakes: he is the
least popular leader of the least popular Party. He and his team will
have calculated that the Deputy Prime Minister performed well in this
medium before and it may therefore give him the opportunity to restore
some popularity and perhaps even credibility – his ratings could hardly
get worse. Perhaps more significantly, by taking this on he is becoming
the face of the pro-European movement in Britain.
Farage stands with plenty to gain but also plenty to lose by agreeing
to the debate. His Party is currently on 11% in the most recent ComRes
poll, broadly in line with the Liberal Democrats’ 10%. UKIP are riding
the crest of a wave, enjoying national levels of support that even the
most optimistic UKIP supporter could not have imagined just a few years
ago. While Nigel Farage is an accomplished performer in public, he
hasn’t been exposed to this sort of intense scrutiny before. This will
be an hour long debate on BBC primetime against an experienced live
televisual opponent. The self-styled “maverick” of British politics is
entering into the political establishment with this move. His customary
pint and cigarette will have to be put away for the hour.
Clegg will believe the debate gives him the opportunity to take on the
UKIP leader one-on-one, undermine his arguments and expose him as a man
short on ideas and substance. Nigel Farage meanwhile will hope to
continue the momentum his party is building, increasing awareness of his
Party and trying to cement them in the mind of voters as a credible
alternative to the status quo. If he does well in the Clegg debate, and
in the European Elections a few weeks later, it will put him in a
powerful position to claim a place in the 2015 leadership debates.
though, it is likely that there will be no knock-out blow, just as
there wasn’t in 2010 and both men will be able to claim a victory of
sorts. This outcome may in fact benefit both leaders. Mr Farage will be
able to keep steam-train UKIP on track, while Clegg may re-establish
his relationship with those who warmed to him in 2010. The Liberal
Democrats may even be calculating – though it is a high risk strategy -
that a UKIP that performs well in 2015 benefits them by hiving off
Conservative votes in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.
the outcome, it is an important moment as we head towards 2015, with
yet another first for British politics adding to the intrigue and
uncertainty. We wait to see if Faragemania is about to break out. This
article was first published on the New Statesman’s Staggers blog on Friday 7th
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