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Thursday, March 27, 2014 

Rocking all over Europe.

I decided to give last night's flyweight tussle between Nick n' Nige a miss (although I've since skipped through it). There are after all only so many times you can hear precisely the same arguments without then wanting to take a long jump off a short cliff. If there's been a week recently when Question Time hasn't discussed immigration, as the Europe debate has transmogrified into, then I can't recall it. Minds have long since been made up, and there's little in the way of middle ground: either you view open borders as an unalloyed good, for both economic and social reasons, with the negatives far outweighed by the positives; or as Farage does, you find the very fact 450 million people could move here tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do as both outrageous and dangerous.

Unsurprisingly then, the YouGov poll conducted after the debate suggested support for withdrawal had gone up by a meagre 2 points, within the margin of error.  The debate wasn't really about such things though; instead it was how the leaders of the third and fourth biggest political parties would come out of it.  While all agree he started well, Farage faded badly towards the end, getting increasingly agitated and sweating heavily, the decision to go for a pint beforehand perhaps not the best idea. Clegg by contrast was fairly consistent throughout, predictably enough considering this was his fourth appearance in such a format.  With the exception of a couple of major slips, such as his opening, where he all but repeated word for word the same message he gave four years ago, and his laughable assertion that three million jobs are dependent on the EU, he gave as good as he got.

Albeit not according to the audience, who fairly convincingly gave the debate to Farage.  Again however, this doesn't really tell us much, especially when the first three questions were pretty much gifts to the UKIPs, being on a referendum, then immigration, then benefits, only after moving onto Europe in the wider sense.  Add on Clegg's deserved unpopularity, and Farage being more popular than his party, and the disparity lessens.  Clegg's approval rating also went up, although frankly it could hardly have gone down much further.

Farage and UKIP's problem which as yet they haven't been forced to address is they're the equivalent of a band that can only play two chords.  The first of the chords, being anti-immigration, is a damn good one and it's served them really well.  The second, blaming everything on the European Union, isn't quite as good and only works when played sparingly.  When forced to rely on that second one, as Farage was towards the end last night, it no longer sounds as catchy.  Claiming that 75% of our laws originate in Europe is just completely absurd, and when he then said the EU had blood on its hands over Ukraine it revealed a complete lack of awareness.  Russia's intervention in Crimea is not about the EU, but instead all to do with Ukraine seeking its own path.  It was only when Yanukovych cancelled the agreement with the EU that the Maidan movement came onto the streets; the EU didn't push for it as much as it was ordinary Ukrainians demanding it and until his u-turn, the president favouring their offer of loans.  The idea anyone could want to be a part of the EU is so anathema to Farage and those he surrounds himself with that it blinds him to the easiest and right explanation.

As Clegg showed during the election debates, being the outsider works so long as you can continue playing the part.  Taken out of that comfort zone, as Farage was towards the end, when he whined that no other politician had "worked so many hours and had as little fun as me" after a questioner asked about his wife being on the EU gravy train he so opposes, he started looking remarkably similar to the rest of the political class, precisely because he embodies them just as much as Clegg does.  Besides, isn't his entire image meant to be of the laughing, jolly but still angry man of the people?  He's often photographed appearing to be having fun, pint in one hand, so is it all an act? Well, of course.

Quite how they're going to get another long debate out of the pair of them also perplexes.  There simply isn't that much about the EU to discuss, unless they really get stuck into the common fisheries/agricultural policies, which while important subjects aren't going to keep most audiences tuned in.  More fundamentally, for all the hype around Farage, all these debates are going to do is further cement him as a single issue politician.  Considering UKIP aspires to become the third party, or supposedly does, to actually win seats at Westminster it needs to at least expand its repertoire to a Quo challenging three chords.  There's been so sign of that whatsoever as yet, and you can't survive forever as the party of protest.  The Lib Dems have been there, done that, and part of Clegg's reason for agreeing to these debates was to shore up his own support.  In those terms, he's succeeded.  As for whether it will do the same to his party's vote in the European elections, he'd be advised not to hold his breath.

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