An unrepentant Nick Clegg insisted he had no regrets about challenging Nigel Farage to debate Europe even though the UK Independence Party leader “won” their two hour-long contests.
The Liberal Democrats insisted they had “set the agenda” for a long overdue national debate on Britain’s future in the European Union after the Conservatives and Labour had left the field clear to the Eurosceptics for 20 years.
Some Conservatives are worried that their party will be damaged by the huge exposure for Ukip, after two opinion polls following Wednesday’s BBC TV debate gave Mr Farage victory by a margin of two to one. One Tory MP said: “That performance by Farage made it far less likely that we will see David Cameron in a TV debate [at next year’s general election]. Farage would love portraying himself as the outsider against three establishment candidates. It would play straight into his agenda.”
Mr Clegg denied he was "bruised" by the debates. He told LBC radio: “These were two hours of a debate that will now go on month in, month out. I understand given the myth-making around the EU over the last 20 years, it is quite a challenge to contest these myths and these settled perceptions. But I am delighted the debate has started because this is a marathon not a sprint."
Criticising Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband for keeping of the debates, the Deputy Prime Minister said: “At least I have the courage to get up and say this is what I believe.”
Lib Dem officials admitted the test of Mr Clegg’s strategy would come at the European Parliament elections on 22 May. They hope his higher profile will boost the party’s 11 per cent average rating in the opinion polls by two or three points, which could be enough to save some of its 12 seats under the proportional representation system. But if the Lib Dems lose most or all of their MEPs, Mr Clegg’s gamble will have backfired.
Mr Cameron said: “The problem with this debate is both of the people taking part actually have quite extreme views. The right answer is to be tough for Britain, renegotiate, get a better deal and then give people the choice in an in/out referendum and that is what I will do if I am Prime Minister after the next election, before the end of 2017."