U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage won a debate on the European Union with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, according to a snap poll, as Clegg warned of mass job losses if Britain pulls out.
The party chiefs clashed last night in the first of two debates on Britain’s membership in the EU, with Farage focusing on immigration and arguing the U.K. would do better if it could negotiate its own trade deals away from the rest of the 28-nation bloc. More than half of those questioned in a YouGov Plc poll said the UKIP leader outperformed Clegg.
“We need a global future for Britain, not one tied and shackled to the European Union,” Farage said. “I want to see a Europe of sovereign free states, not a union based in Brussels run by unelected bureaucrats.”
Both Clegg and Farage were seeking to capitalize on the exposure given by the debate in London, which was broadcast by LBC Radio and on Sky News television. For Farage, it offered national coverage and legitimization of his party’s place in British politics as it campaigns for withdrawal from the EU. For Clegg, it was a chance to boost his Liberal Democrats’ flagging poll ratings ahead of European Parliament elections on May 22. UKIP is targeting first place in those elections.
In the YouGov poll of 1,003 voters, 57 percent said Farage “performed better,” compared with 36 percent for Clegg. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they backed staying in the EU, against 48 percent before the debate, while 44 percent said Britain should leave, compared with 42 percent before. No margin of error was specified.
Clegg focused on economic arguments for remaining in the EU, saying that 3 million British jobs rely on the bloc.
“We gain clout by being members of the world’s largest economic superpower,” he said, citing Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Ford Motor Co. and Siemens AG as companies which would invest less in Britain if it was outside the EU. “If we turn into a closed country, we will be poorer and have higher unemployment.”
The true impact of the debate on voters’ opinions will take time to emerge, said Andrew Hawkins, the chairman of polling company ComRes Ltd. The most likely outcome is it will entrench people’s positions, he said in a telephone interview.
“When we did polling after the leaders’ debates during the 2010 election campaign, we found for every viewer who changed their mind following the debate there were seven who didn’t watch the debate who changed their mind because of some of the media coverage,” he said. “People who were amenable to Farage will still hold to that view. It’s a bit like reading a newspaper; you don’t read it to change your mind, you do it to reinforce your prejudices.”
Farage repeatedly returned to the subject of immigration, saying that British wages are depressed because its borders are open to 485 million people from the Europe who could come to seek work.
“We’ve had a massive oversupply of labor and you’ve seen your wages go down as the cost of living has gone up,” Farage said in a direct appeal to blue-collar workers. “That’s not fair for working people in this country.”
Farage said southern Europeans were not as good at obeying EU laws as those in the north of Europe, and he appealed to “get our country back.” He also said that the bloc “frankly does have blood on its hands in the Ukraine” for encouraging the popular uprising that led to the ousting of the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Clegg and Farage, the privately educated sons of a banker and a stockbroker respectively, have benefited from positioning themselves as being outside the British political establishment.
Clegg gained support in the debates before the 2010 general election, helping propel his party into a coalition government, by emphasizing his difference from the other main party leaders, David Cameron and Gordon Brown, while Farage, who said Clegg represented the status quo, has styled himself as a straight-talking, beer-drinking man of the people.
“At the next debate, Nick should be even bolder; the British people are there to be convinced,” Tim Farron, the president of Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party, said in an interview. “We should be a lot bolder about saying this is about Britain’s future; the argument in favor of staying in the EU is entirely pragmatic.”
Clegg took time to dispel what he said were “myths” promoted by UKIP to bolster its argument. He challenged UKIP’s estimate of the cost of the EU to British taxpayers and said seven percent of U.K. laws are made by the bloc, not the 75 percent estimated by Farage.
“What’s at stake here is British jobs, safety, our economy, our place in the world, and quitting Europe would put all of that at risk,” Clegg said. “I want us to be Great Britain, not little England.”
UKIP came second in the 2009 European Parliament elections, with 17 percent of the vote. Two polls last week had UKIP in third place at 23 percent. The Liberal Democrats, who came fourth in 2009, are on course for the same placing, with six polls this year putting them at between 7 percent and 10 percent. That could see them lose half or all of their seats.
At the same time Farage is aiming for UKIP, which has never won a seat in the House of Commons, to make a breakthrough in the general election in May of next year. Cameron has made Britain’s relationship with Europe a key campaign issue by pledging a referendum on EU membership if he wins and stays on as prime minister.
The second debate will be broadcast by the BBC on April 2.