Why Nigel Farage has accepted Clegg's EU debate challenge

Ukip leader hopes it will lead to him being included in televised leaders' debates at 2015 general election

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:54 ON Fri 21 Feb 2014

NIGEL FARAGE today stepped up his demand to be included in the national televised party leaders’ debates at the 2015 general election after accepting a challenge from Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, to debate Ukip’s policy of pulling Britain out of Europe.

Currently, the argument against Farage being invited to join Cameron, Miliband and Clegg in the eve-of-election TV debates next year is very simple: without any Westminster seats, Ukip is not a major party and need not be invited to the top table. All Farage has is opinion polls suggesting more people – possibly twice as many - will vote for Ukip than for the Lib Dems at the 2015 election.

However, he also has high hopes of Ukip doing very well in the European elections this May: a recent YouGov poll suggests Ukip could end up with 23 MEPs in Brussels, short of Labour's predicted 28, but way ahead of the Tories (15 seats predicted, down by 11) and the Lib Dems (predicted to lose all their 11 seats). It is this prospect which he believes could turn the tables. 

Acknowledging that the other leaders did not want him in the 2015 debates, Farage said this morning: “It depends on Ukip’s progress – there’s 91 days to the European elections. If Ukip can achieve what I believe is possible – that we win a national election – how can they possibly keep us out of the leaders’ debates next year?"

Farage was speaking on LBC Radio, where he announced he was accepting Clegg's challenge, issued on the same station yesterday, to debate Europe.

One caller to LBC this morning said Farage should have held out for a "cast iron" written guarantee of a place in the 2015 leaders’ debates before accepting the challenge.

Farage responded: "I thought about that. [But] if this works and engages a large number of people in the European elections, it makes it more likely that next year, for the general election, everyone will be involved. I see this as a step towards the same thing happening on a bigger scale next year.”

Explaining why he had agreed to debate Clegg, Farage said: “I thought about this overnight. The reason I got into politics – I was working in the City – was because I felt on this great question of who governs our country, Parliament or the institutions of Brussels, we weren’t having a proper debate. So the answer is yes. I can hardly wait.”

It is not clear when exactly the LBC debate will take place or whether, given the national interest, it might be moved elsewhere (BBC Newsnight has already offered its studio, anytime) or indeed whether Ed Miliband might be persuaded to join in (according to one report this morning, the Labour leader has not ruled it out).

Whatever happens, David Cameron is highly unlikely to agree to take part. Farage said Downing Street had already started briefing that Cameron was too busy running the country to debate the EU with the Ukip leader. He said: “I bet you a £5 they won’t.”

If it it is just Clegg and Farage, which seems most likely, who stands to gain? 

Clegg knows he has nothing to lose – he is an unequivocal pro-European facing a whitewash in the May election. And he's probably hoping Farage will fall flat on his face. 

On the other hand, no one knows better than Clegg what a national debate can do for you – he was the easy winner against Cameron and Gordon Brown in the 2010 general election debates. But then no one knows better how quickly the nation's affection can be withdrawn. · 

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What next? An invite to a representative of the Raving Loony Party?

This is not a foregone conclusion. Clegg did rather well in the televised "presentations" prior to the last General Election and, of course, he will have prepared his arguments thoroughly (one would expect, at least). However, it will not be enough to simply spout off a list of mere "facts and figures" for either of the two debaters - convincing arguments run deeper than that.

This mooted debate is just as much about the democratic questionability of the continuing denial of any referendum as it is about any "benefits", or otherwise, of remaining in Europe or, instead, re-nogotiating this rather onerous and one-sided contract

Nigel Farage is a passionate orator and he has an "appeal" that Clegg clearly lacks. Provided that Farage leaves his obligatory fag and pint of beer at the studio entrance, he should just nick this one.

Farage will argue that regardless of the outcome of any possible EU referendum we, the electorate, are entitled to that referendum. Clegg will ignore that basic tenet and concentrate on the "benefits" as he sees them, of remaining under the Brussels yoke.

Until and unless we are granted that referendum this matter will simply run and run. Cameron, Miliband, Clegg et al - take note!