And the winner is … David Cameron. Of the two who actually took part, Nigel Farage had the better of last night’s debate, in that his argument was simpler, more authentic, and presented with touches of humour. Nick Clegg was judged to have “lost” the engagement in YouGov’s instant poll, but it served him well enough. With the Liberal Democrats currently at 10 per cent in the opinion polls, to have 36 per cent judging him the “winner” of the debate is a net gain.
Farage, judged the winner by 57 per cent, had the advantage of being right about the free movement of workers, saying that the entire population of the rest of the EU is entitled to move to this country. Clegg's counter-argument was that UKIP had said that the combined population of Romania and Bulgaria is 29 million when really it is 28 and a half million.
He sounded equally unconvincing when he said that we had to stay in the EU because it gave us "clout". This came across as a kind of Green Shield stamps for politicians: an incentive scheme involving collecting points to be redeemed for shiny baubles. Only when he made a more specific argument about negotiating trade agreements with other countries - trade agreements on which British jobs depended - did the argument become credible. Farage had a counter to that, which was that Britain was perfectly capable of negotiating trade deals itself. That argument ground to a draw, as Clegg got to the point where he said that if EU membership created just one extra job it would be worth it. In other words, it may not be as many as 3 million jobs that depend on EU membership, but as long as it is a net positive in the employment figures, it is worth it. Well, possibly.
Clegg's economic argument worked better when he mentioned companies that people had heard of, and Farage was weak when he said that the rest of Europe needed our market more than we needed theirs. Well, theirs is bigger than ours, to be blunt: expect more of this in next week's second exciting instalment of the debate on BBC2.
Clegg made a resonant mistake when he was challenged over a Liberal Democrat leaflet promising a referendum on British membership of the EU. "Read the small print," he said. That was his argument throughout: never mind what seems obvious, I have some prepared sound bites here that say it isn't so.
Against this obfuscation, Farage's plain man act prevailed easily. "Oh dear, oh dear. What are you on about?" But it shaded too easily into moth-ball mythology, and Farage began to lose ground when he talked about Anglo-Saxon culture, habeas corpus and the Commonwealth. He needs to portray Clegg and the Euro-elite as backward looking, rather than sounding like an Empire loyalist himself.
Yet he and Clegg achieved what they set out to do. They both succeeded in attracting huge publicity and reinforcing their bases of support. People don't pay much attention to politics and when they do it is things such as finding out that we pay child benefit for 45,000 children in other EU countries that cut through. But Clegg succeeded too - he made the jobs argument strongly and achieved definition as the supporter of the EU.
And a triumph for LBC too, the newly national radio station that staged the debate. Not that it was LBC's idea - that credit should be taken by Ryan Coetzee, Clegg's director of strategy.
There were two larger consequences of last night. One is that the TV debates between the main party leaders are even more certain not to happen in the general election campaign. Last night happened because it was in the interest of both leaders. Clegg didn't mind "losing" because he had nothing to lose, but he lost partly because he is the unpopular government politician. The incumbent usually has more to lose, which is why David Cameron will find ways by which the TV debates will not happen.
But the other consequence is more important. Last night's debate was between two clear poles of an argument. In unconditionally versus out unconditionally. And we know where the British voter prefers to be when presented with a choice like that.
David Cameron's policy will be easily most popular position when
it comes to the general election next year. "Renegotiate and
decide" is the third-way winner.