Mark Leftly: Nick Clegg's refusal to take Nigel Farage seriously could cost the UK economy dear
Westminster Outlook More than four million jobs; £211bn in exports; peace.
Out of reckless hubris, Nick Clegg has risked these immense economic benefits – a lack of intracontinental wars is pretty good for business – of Britain's EU membership in a long-shot gamble to save a few political careers in Brussels.
The deputy prime minister did not have to challenge Ukip leader Nigel Farage to the live televised face-offs that he lost so badly. On Wednesday evening, snap polls showed that more than two-thirds of viewers backed Mr Farage's argument that Britain must get out of the EU – an even worse trouncing than the previous week.
Mr Clegg declared himself the saviour of EU membership; he dared the electorate to choose between Ukip and the Liberal Democrats at May's Euro elections, as they are, he claimed, the only parties with clear views on the issue. Turning May's vote into a de facto referendum, though, was not altruistic: facing a wipe-out of the party's 12 MEPs, Mr Clegg wanted the air time to boost the Lib Dems' dire poll standings.
Mr Clegg chose to speak for Europhiles, they did not choose him. He thought that one decent TV performance four years ago, in the first general election leaders' debate that sparked "Cleggmania", meant he was the king of prime-time; that this time around he would have an easy win against a fruitcake.
He was wrong, and woefully under-prepared for these debates. Mr Clegg didn't think Mr Farage was in his league, refusing even to turn to his opponent during the first debate, but proved himself a one-trick pony with his irritating habit of consistently name-checking audience members.
Mr Clegg did not win that debate in 2010 because he was substantially better than David Cameron. He won it because he was the underdog. No one knew what to expect of him, so a good performance was perceived to be a great one.
Now, he is a slick deputy prime minister who at times, particularly during the first 20 minutes of near-shouting on Wednesday, looked as though he was trying to bully a lesser man. Remarkably, Mr Clegg had learned absolutely nothing from the smarter, statistically driven debate the previous week, where his loss was slighter and mattered less as it was not on the BBC.
On Tuesday, a pro-European Tory MP told me how much he "admired" Mr Clegg for taking the argument to Ukip; by Wednesday night he was dismissing the Lib Dem leader as an idiot.
Mr Clegg decided to get angry in the rematch, but he showed no more respect for Mr Farage, instead insulting Eurosceptics by cheaply deriding their leader as a conspiracy theorist who probably believes the Moon landing was faked.
Even more remarkably, these antiquated, unbecoming jibes were obviously pre-scripted. Who among his advisers really thought it was a good idea to woo a broad audience in the age of social media by mocking Mr Farage as a lunatic who wanted a return to the gold standard?
Worst of all, Mr Farage was there to be hit. In the first confrontation, Mr Farage made one of the most outrageous political blunders of recent times when he said that the EU had "blood on its hands" over the Ukraine crisis.
As well as being quite wrong, this imagery is all too close to Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech against immigration, which even nearly half-a-century later is offensive to most of the population. Mr Farage hasn't hidden his admiration for passages of that speech, but most of the viewers wouldn't have known – and Mr Clegg had the opportunity to tell them.
Mr Farage's nearest and dearest feared how Mr Clegg would use that comment against him this week. Instead, up came an extraordinarily lame joke that surely couldn't have been funny even in rehearsal: "If I'm the leader of the party of in [the EU], Nigel Farage is the leader of Putin."
Mr Farage did repeat his admiration for Putin as a political operator, but, as one of the Farage clan pointed out, no one was going to buy Mr Clegg's assertion that the two were essentially best friends, particularly with that kind of childish delivery.
Then there was the whole mystique of Mr Farage: a bloke from the pub, not a Westminster junkie who lives only for political self-aggrandisement. He repeatedly attacked the "career political class" – a class to which he himself most certainly belongs, having defected from the Conservatives and co-founded Ukip in his twenties, more than two decades ago.
His entire "Westminster outsider" pitch could have been publicly shattered. But that was only possible if Mr Clegg had pointed out that here was someone who had joined the Tories as a teenager and went on to stand and fail time and again to win political office before finally becoming an MEP in 1999.
Finally, forget the argument that Mr Farage had nothing to lose: these debates were the best chance he has ever had to be taken seriously and he couldn't afford to make many unfounded, silly attacks; instead, it was Mr Clegg who accused Mr Farage of wanting a "Billy No Mates Britain".
In his arrogance, Mr Clegg has strengthened a cause that, if successful, will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and hurt Britain's economy. Do us a favour, Nick: stick to your self-regarding radio show.
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