The general election leaders’ debates of 2010 were dominated by the phrase “I agree with Nick”. Clegg was seen to have performed particularly well against Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the first debate; partly because of his easy manner, and also because he presented himself effectively as the outsider.
The debate has now raged for months as to whether Ukip should or should not be involved in the leaders’ debates in 2015, the most recent contribution being from Boris Johnson, who has, in classic Johnson style, U-turned to say that Ukip should now not be included. I am assuming that is down to internal Conservative Party politics. But I have been insisting until I am blue in the face that the next election is not in 2015, it’s on 22 May 2014! It’s the European elections, the whole country has a vote and it’s only 86 days away.
But I’ve had no response, until suddenly Clegg announced on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show that he wanted to challenge me to a debate on EU membership ahead of the vote. I nearly choked on my bacon roll with surprise because this is the man who has backtracked on his 2010 manifesto pledge to hold an in/out referendum, and who previously held both Houses to ransom when the Lisbon Treaty was being debated. Now, though, he wants to have a televised, public debate with me. He must be getting desperate.
Before accepting the offer I wanted to make sure that Messrs Cameron and Miliband were invited, too. They have declined the opportunity, with the Prime Minister saying that he’s “too busy running the country”. Well, he’s certainly running from something, but the whole point, Mr Cameron, is to discuss who is running the country: him or Brussels.
So what motivated Clegg to extend this offer? In my opinion, it’s because his party is languishing at a steady eight per cent in the polls for the European elections. He currently has 12 MEPs, and if he achieves only his current polling he could face total wipe out. In fact, the Lib Dems are actually a fringe party in the context of this year’s campaign.
So Clegg wants publicity. And he wants to present the Lib Dems as the “in” party, appealing to pro-EU voters from Labour and the Tories. So the question for me was, should I be seen to be helping? Do I want to help raise Clegg’s profile and potentially cost us MEPs by helping the Lib Dems nudge above the threshold for clinging onto a few seats?
My decision to say yes was based on a bigger concept than that of short-term, party-political advantage. I have been waiting for 20 years to have a national debate on the great EU membership question. And so I felt that I had no choice but to accept, given that my motivation for leaving business and coming into politics was to win back the independence, self-government and self-respect of this nation.
I am now very excited that this debate will make sure that the European elections are contested on proper, EU-related issues. That doesn’t mean obscure clauses of treaties that virtually nobody has ever read. It means money; open door immigration; our inhibition of global trading opportunities; and how impotent our Westminster Parliament has become in governing UK matters. And I can tell you, I very much look forward to saying I don’t agree with Nick.Reuse content