Even as David Dimbleby drew Wednesday’s debate to a close, it was clear to most of the audience and those watching who had ‘won’. Farage’s victory will be attributed to a variety of factors – and outright denied by many in the Liberal Democrat corner – but one underlying truth rings out in explaining why Farage walked away with victory again, this time with a whopping increased margin of 11 per cent: Clegg was his own worst enemy.
One of the most vocal criticisms of Clegg’s performance in the aftermath of last week’s round one was Clegg’s statistic-heavy and near aloof delivery. He stuck to the facts, albeit those cherry picked for his argument, and registered a measured gentleman’s approach to the disagreement. Wary from the fruitless victory this strategy garnered, Team Clegg settled on a fresh approach: come out swinging.
Clegg is no longer the trustworthy outsider leader of a loveable party promising to deliver the world on a plate – he is a tried and tested leading politician in Government.
And the sad truth of politics is no one, without exception, trusts a politician – let alone one in power.
And to Nick’s credit, he did – beginning, and impressively gaining the early upper hand, by laying into Farage’s recently quoted admiration for his ‘friend’ Vlad. As the debate wore on however, this passion began to sound like anger, which in turn quickly started to sound like petulance. Clegg puffed, and pouted, raised his voice and wagged his finger. Farage, in contrast, has been lauded for delivering a measured and uncharacteristically statesmanlike performance. In reality, he puffed and pouted and muttered under his breath in time with Clegg. The simple difference is we expect this from Nigel – it’s just ‘Nige’ being ‘Nige’. This variance in perception explains Clegg’s second mistake: he has failed to accurately identify the respective roles he and his opponent play in this pantomime we call Westminster.
Most of Clegg’s puffing and forced delivery of some, frankly, flat jokes was an attempt to portray Farage as an outsider – to ‘trust Nick’ and ‘fear Nigel’. The first problem with this form of attack is this is exactly the currency Farage deals in. Farage has tapped into a growing political dissatisfaction with the status quo, proclaimed himself the standard-bearer for all those outside the ‘establishment’ and garnered a considerably vocal following as a result. Farage knowingly embodies fringe eccentricity, so Clegg’s charges to this effect do not register.
As if his mistaken perception of Farage’s character was not problem enough, Clegg compounded this mistake by playing a character from his past, rather than his current role. As Clegg emotionally appealed for viewers to discard of Farage, he did so under a false assumption: that he can be trusted. For all of Farage’s personal claims to represent ‘middle England’ and the common man against Clegg’s ‘establishment’, amongst the reeking hypocrisy lies an honest truth: as a leading member of government for the past four years, Clegg is now firmly part of the establishment.
What Clegg forgot, as he attempted to trade on the same platform of moral purity and untested bond of word with which he flourished in debates four years ago, is that his past four years as the leader of a governing party have rendered him these things not. His bond has been broken and he has been tainted by the stench of Government, often referred to as an exercise in making the best of some bad decisions. This is not a charge of condemnation but rather an honest observation: Clegg is no longer the trustworthy outsider leader of a loveable party promising to deliver the world on a plate – he is a tried and tested leading politician in Government. And the sad truth of politics is no one, without exception, trusts a politician – let alone one in power.
But this is where Clegg missed his opportunity. Time and time again, Farage decried the supposed governing control Brussels holds over this Great Britain and rebuked Clegg for apparently standing by, happily watching British people lose the ability to make decisions for Britain. But Clegg’s responses could have landed blow after blow:
‘Why then, does Nigel forgo the opportunity he has been granted and elected – by British voters and taxpayers, mind you – to influence these supposedly draconian and dictating Belgian directives in the European Parliament?’
‘I have made hard, honest decisions in the service of and for the betterment of my country – I have taken the responsibility entrusted in me by the British electorate and principally wielded this influence to enact positive change.’
‘What have you done with your responsibility – if democracy drives your decisions Nigel, why do you shirk this responsibility and refuse to participate in the democratic process of which you yourself are an elected member of?’
Farage’s expected dismissive response to this line of questioning – that the European Union, and associated institutions including the European Parliament of which he is a member, are not democratic at all – could have provided Clegg the set up for a wonderfully powerful, yet vitally missed, challenge to conclude this bloody series of bouts on his own terms and with Nigel on the back foot:
‘Then why not participate in the democratic institution that directly and unequivocally represents the voters of whom you so loudly profess to entrust with the ultimate adjudication for Britain’s greatest interests – namely, then why not run for Parliament in 2015?’
Instead of this imagined ending to Wednesday’s debate, we had the reality: Farage had the powerful last word; calling for British people to join his army against Clegg’s established political entrenchment, as Clegg feebly and stumblingly admitted his view of the EU in ten years is that it will be “quite similar to what it is now.” As even a majority of pro-EU voters admit they seek some reduction in EU powers, these optimistic Team Clegg members can take solace in and count this defeat a minor Pyrrhic victory simply for the limited airplay that final admission of Clegg’s has received.
 Ipsos MORI poll, January 2014