Nick Clegg stakes his future on trial-by-debate with Ukip leader Nigel Farage

EU gamble could save Lib Dem seats or spark leadership race if it backfires

Political Editor

Nick Clegg’s high-risk strategy of advertising his pro-European credentials will be put to the test when he goes head-to-head with Nigel Farage in the first of two broadcast debates.

The Liberal Democrat leader is gambling that his appeal to the estimated 25 per cent of the public who are strongly committed to Britain’s EU membership will prevent his party suffering a meltdown in the European Parliament elections on 22 May.

The Lib Dems fear their group of 12 MEPs could be cut to two or even none. If that happens, Mr Clegg’s decision to break with tradition and talk about Europe in a Euro election will be seen as a disastrous mistake that raises big questions about his judgment.

It is a calculated risk: 25 per cent is higher than the Lib Dems’ 10 per cent rating in the opinion polls. “We are not asking people to vote for us at the general election; this is about Britain’s place in Europe,” said one Lib Dem source.

The Deputy Prime Minister decided to brand the Lib Dems as the “party of in”, a deliberate contrast with the UK Independence Party.

Although Mr Clegg was the unexpected star of the leaders’ televised debates at the 2010 general election, his aides insist he is “the underdog” against Mr Farage because public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to the EU.

The leaders of the two smallest of Britain’s four main parties will lock horns in a one-hour debate hosted by the LBC 97.3 radio station at 7pm on Wednesday night, which will also be shown on Sky News. Their second clash, a week later, will be screened on BBC2.

The Conservatives and Labour dismiss the two debates as the “battle of the lightweights”. But they will be glued to them and will wonder whether they should have taken a seat at the table. Both the Lib Dems and Ukip will label the two biggest parties “too scared” to discuss Europe, claiming that Labour does not want to look pro-European to a Eurosceptic electorate and saying that the Tories are split on the whole “in-out” question.

Despite their very different visions of Europe, there is mutual respect between the Lib Dems and Ukip because of their willingness to engage on the Europe issue. Fittingly, as Mr Farage is normally photographed drinking beer, the terms of the two debates were settled amicably and speedily over a pint in The Iron Duke pub near Ukip’s Mayfair HQ, by Clegg aides Jonny Oates and James McGrory and Mr Farage’s communications advisers Patrick O’Flynn and Alexandra Phillips.

Mr Farage has been mugging up on his statistics and is keen to demolish claims that 3.5 million British jobs depend on EU membership. But there has been no dress rehearsal with someone acting the part of Mr Clegg. Mr Farage, who likes to think on his feet, told aides: “I do not want to be over-prepared.”

The Deputy Prime Minister’s team stresses that his “busy day job” has limited his time for war-gaming and arguing with a stand-in Mr Farage, adding that he is concentrating on “facts and figures” ahead of the debate.

Both parties sense a big opportunity, even though only one can emerge a winner. For Ukip, the debates mark another leg of its long march from single-issue pressure group to a threat to all three main national parties.

“Nigel has waited 20 years for this,” one Ukip aide said. “This is a big moment for us.”

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week