The conventional wisdom in the Westminster village is that ‘Nick v Nigel’is best explained, regardless of how well he does, by Nick Clegg’s apparent political weakness. “What has he got to lose?” say Conservative sources. If you are struggling in the polls, why not roll the dice and gamble? Proclaim the virtues of the EU unashamedly, and perhaps some voters will reward you for your brazen honesty. For the other two parties, who declined to take part, this is a helpful line because it obscures an uncomfortable truth for them. The debates are happening not because of Nick Clegg’s political weakness, but because of his party’s unprecedented political power, and the declining influence of the big two.
The assumption that the debates are a function of Clegg’s weakness is justified by the view that no sane party would choose to fight a European election campaign on Europe. The inference is that, in happier times, the Liberal Democrats would have joined the others and campaigned on anything but Europe. Before Clegg became leader they tended to do just that. But five years ago, at the 2009 European election, the party reversed its approach. Even at a respectable 20% in the polls, senior figures including Clegg, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey and Danny Alexander all welcomed an avowedly pro-European pitch. The decision to talk about Europe was certainly not regarded as a do-or-die gamble.
Much of the argument that Clegg is now taking to Farage, on the benefits of EU membership for jobs, tackling crime and protecting the environment was thrashed out for the2009 election campaign. The desire to fight on European issues was not therefore based on a tactical need to address political weakness, but on a combination of genuine pro-European conviction and an attempt to force the third party into the story with a fresh perspective. And, valiantly, the party tried to do so.
But the campaign was an abject failure, and for two reasons. Firstly, the MPs’ expenses scandal deprived the campaign of oxygen, dominating political reporting for weeks. Even at the height of a European election campaign, it was very difficult to get anybody to talk or write about Europe. Secondly, but more fundamentally, the 2009 campaign’s failure was compounded by a structural political weakness, way beyond the popularity or otherwise of party or leader. It was the simple fact that Nick Clegg led the third party, from opposition. If the big two did not want to talk about Europe, why would the media want to talk about Europe? Even without the expenses scandal, Lib Dem ability to put the issue on the agenda was slight.
Compare that with what has happened in the last week, all due to an initiative supposedly born of weakness. Front-page print coverage, top of News at 10, the undivided attention of the Westminster lobby, thousands of tweets and a BBC TV debate yet to come, all featuring the Lib Dem Leader and his party’s views on Europe; this reflects not weakness, but political influence of a magnitude that the pro-European third party could only dream of in 2009. Without the status of his DPM title, there would be no ‘Ask Nick’ LBC phone-in, no media backing for a debate, and no television platform. The rather prosaic truth is that the Lib Dems are using unprecedented political power to promote EU membership, an issue central to their cause.
Of course, a debater needs an opponent, and the rise of UKIP is part of the equation, as is David Cameron’s decision to commit to a referendum and raise the stakes. But the Prime Minister seems unenthusiastic about actually debating those stakes. And Nigel Farage owes his place entirely to the Deputy Prime Minister. If the debates are a gamble for Clegg it is only in the sense that Farage is give another platform to air his views. But while he may fairly claim to be an underdog against the House of Commons, he has never been short of powerful allies when it comes to his views on Europe, which have long been backed and propagated by the right-wing press. From this perspective, it is Clegg who is going against the grain. It is the pro-European message that needs the oxygen, albeit in the straight-fight of a TV debate.
If recent polls showed Labour or the Tories consistently polling above 40% then perhaps all this might still be dismissed as a one-off consolation prize. And perhaps after 2015 we will see a return to business-as-usual politics. But for now the big two show few signs of escaping their own malaise with the voters. Another hung parliament remains a strong possibility. And UKIP has, for now at least, turned British politics into a four party system. Perhaps some voters will welcome a more pluralist politics that opens up a debate on Europe, for so long closed down by Lab-Con leaderships who viewed it as too divisive.
The big two parties will downplay the significance of ‘Nick v Nigel’. But it must be unnerving for them.On what other occasion in British political history have the two major parties been so completely absent from such a contentious and widely-reported policy debate? From a supposed position of weakness, Nick Clegg still seems able to make quite an impact on the political landscape. As they are once more pushed out of the picture for a day or two, David Cameron and Ed Miliband will have some time to think about their own political weaknesses.
Ben Jones is a PhD Student in the Department of European & International Studies. He was foreign affairs adviser to the Liberal Democrats between 2007-2010, and chaired the party’s 2013 EU policy working group. Here he writes in a personal capacity.
Note: this post gives the views of the author and not the position of Europe on the Strand nor King’s College London.