So this was it. The rumble in the jungle. Without a title fight since 2010, the undisputed TV debate champion was up against the great white hope of anti-politics, the man we always thought of as the No 1 cheeky chappie but who, we were horrified to learn, believes that no politician has in recent years “worked so many hours and had as little fun as me”.
The contest, sharply refereed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari, was the liveliest political event for quite a while, albeit one without a knock-out. One problem in making the crucial points judgement – apart from avoiding the likes of Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron and Ukip star European candidate Patrick O’Flynn prowling the 'spin room' – is that Clegg-Farage is a kind of category mistake. Clegg remains in many respects a conventional politician; even his wilder claims about three million jobs disappearing if Britain leaves the EU were modified with the assertion that that’s the number “linked” to EU membership.
Farage, by contrast, may be at heart steeped in 1950s nostalgia, but is a good deal more post-modern about the facts and figures. There was a good moment when Clegg reminded him of his threat that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians could flood into the UK last January – which hasn’t exactly happened – and pointed out this was bigger than the relevant population. Unabashed, Farage said that was because of the numbers that “have left already”. And anyway he wasn’t talking about a mere 29 million any more but about the “485 million [EU citizens] who have a total, unconditional right to come here if they want to”.
But Farage, it became clear, has performed a welcome service to politics. He has obliged Nick Clegg to rediscover his inner liberal – especially on immigration.
Farage looked a little sweatier, but this was no 1960 Nixon against Kennedy. He is still a contender, but it was probably Clegg’s night on points. Rematch next week.
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