Clegg gambles on anti-Ukip, pro-EU stance
Embattled Liberal Democrats are parading their pro-European credentials ahead of European Parliament elections in May
Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, delivers his keynote address to the party’s spring conference in York. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), was not in York at the weekend but he was, nonetheless, everywhere at the Liberal Democrats’ spring gathering.
Farage leads a xenophobic, frightened, insular and isolationist party, the Lib Dems declared in chorus – led by their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
The three days in York marked the beginning of the party’s campaign to protect its 11 European Parliament seats in the May elections and prepare for the general election in 2015.
The targeting of Ukip is entirely deliberate, and the Lib Dems, hardened by nearly four years in office, are remarkably confident that it will work.
In particular, the focus on Ukip, second in the opinion polls for the May elections, offers the Lib Dems everything a party craves: an enemy to define oneself against.
The Conservatives are split on the European Union, while Ed Miliband’s Labour is silent, because of its own divisions and fears of antagonising voters who could pitch Ukip’s way.
Clegg has gambled by challenging Farage to public debates: one on radio later this month and the other, to be carried live on BBC2 in early April, after a rush by interested broadcasters.
The encounters will offer both the opportunity of dominating debate; though the two men – both articulate performers, if Farage does a better “common man” routine – have different targets.
Farage will focus on immigration, while Clegg feels there is a sufficiently large constituency who believe in the UK’s place in the EU, even if they have gripes.
Such people, he told delegates before they left York yesterday, believe in “Great Britain, not Little England”, in “hope, not fear”, in “the future, not the past”.
Declaring his party “the guardians of an open, tolerant Britain”, Clegg issued an appeal to new voters who “may not have voted for us before: it doesn’t matter, that’s the past.
“What matters now is the kind of country you want to live in. The kind of nation you want us to be,” he went on, in one of the best speeches of his career.
The numbers in such a constituency may have grown following Conservative home office minister James Brokenshire’s immigration speech last week. In it, he blamed immigration on “wealthy metropolitan elites”, saying that for too long its benefits went to those who wanted “cheap tradesmen and services”, not ordinary people.
The Lib Dems’ pro-EU stand – one based on UK national interests, rather than “starry-eyed affection”, as Clegg put it yesterday – will infuriate many, but they were never likely supporters.
The argument has been easier to make since fears that waves of Romanians and Bulgarians would arrive immediately after free movement controls lapsed on January 1st ended up being widely mocked.