The people might have judged Farage to have beaten Clegg – but will that translate into votes for the Ukip leader?

It’s good that these debates happened, even if there’s disagreement about who won

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Once again, the public has judged that Nigel Farage out-argued Nick Clegg, and once again there appears to be a gap in perception between the public and the professional commentariat, for whom Nick Clegg was the winner both times.

Of course there is a gap, because the two groups are listening out for different things. Some of us have lived with these arguments about Europe for years - to the extent that anything a politician says on the subject can be ticked off against what has been said before.

Consider the moment the debate threatened to turn nasty - when Nigel Farage professed to be ‘shocked’, and implied that Clegg was a liar, after the Deputy Prime Minister had said that only seven per cent of primary legislation passed in the UK is  dictated by the EU.

The figure is correct. It comes from the House of Commons library, but the operative word is “primary”. Primary legislation is the technical term for Acts of Parliament or Statutes. It is the big stuff that really matters, but it is only a fraction  of all legislation. The proportion of all legislation handed down by the EU is substantially more than seven per cent. Clegg was therefore doing what politicians do – citing the fact that supported his case, and ignoring the ones that do not.

Perhaps he should not do that, but for Farage to leap on his high horse and accuse Clegg of lying, as if no one in Ukip is never selective with the choice of statistics, is not going to impress any listener who knows the facts.

However, most people do not. Why should they? I suspect that most people listening saw Farage’s reaction and believed that he was the honest bloke battling for truth and this his opponent was another silver-tongued, untrustworthy politician.

Still, it is good that these debates happened. It has been suggested that Farage was the combatant with nothing to lose while Clegg had nothing to gain. Both assumptions are false. Farage might have buckled under pressure and done himself irreparable political damage, as the obnoxious Nick Griffin did when the BBC allowed him on to Question Time. Instead, he has twice shown that he can take the heat.

As for Nick Clegg, his party had sunk about as slow in the polls as it can go. He will not have done himself any harm by making himself visible. It is also good practice for the big debates that will precede next year’s general election.

The big unknown is this: the YouGov polls which put Farage ahead in both debates asked people who they thought had won the argument. They did not ask whether the debates had altered anyone’s opinions on EU membership, or indeed on whether the EU should abandon Ukraine to its fate.

It is increasingly likely that we will soon have a referendum on EU membership in the next Parliament. When confronted with a decision that actually affects their economic well-being, I suspect people will vote as they are advised to by the likes of Nick Clegg - telling Nigel Farage that much as they like him, they do not want to follow him.

Read more:
Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage second live debate: Ukip leader tops poll after Clegg's aggressive strategy backfires spectacularly
Nigel Farage: Why did Nick Clegg keep ducking the vital questions in our debate last night?
Nick Clegg: Nigel Farage has modern justice - and my position on Andrew Symeou - all wrong

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