Open Europe Blog

The majority of the UK public was not represented at last night’s debate

The second EU debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was an altogether more scrappy and bad-tempered affair with more personal attacks and fewer statbombs being thrown about. 

The polls hand Farage a clear victory – 68%/27% in the Sun/YouGov poll and 69%/31% in the Guardian/ICM poll – a more comprehensive margin than last week.

So clearly a bad evening for Nick Clegg, although the calculations of the Lib Dem strategists seems to be that the combination of the additional exposure and full-throated defence of the EU will allow the party to pick up some extra votes in May’s European elections.

However, it remains to be seen what the longer term repercussions of the debates will be. It was striking that, over the course of two hours, Clegg had virtually nothing to say about the EU’s flaws and failings and what reforms he’d like to see. Indeed, in response to a question from the audience about how the EU would look in 10 years’ time, he said that it would look “quite similar to what it is now”. Given what is happening in the eurozone, which will indirectly also affect the UK’s position in the EU (something Clegg has himself mentioned on previous occasions), this is simply not credible. It also completely dismisses the public appetite for EU reform.

What is interesting is that, despite Farage’s overwhelming victory in the debate, the Sun/YouGov before/after poll showed that public opinion on the In/Out question remained pretty finely balanced. Before the debate there was a small majority in favour of staying in the EU – 48% compared with 42% in favour of leaving – after the debate this was reversed slightly with 45% in favour of staying in and 48% in favour of leaving.

Polling has consistently shown that when the public are offered options that go beyond the binary in/out question, the majority of the public fall between the Clegg and Farage positions, with a far larger constituency in favour of staying in a reformed/slimmed down EU.

People hold different views about how they would like to see the European Union develop. Which of these statements comes closest to your view? (click to enlarge)

Source: YouGov poll for Open Europe, February 2014
Clegg’s decision to talk only to the limited number of ‘in no matter what’ voters might be a clever Lib Dem ‘core vote’ strategy but it will turn off many swing voters in any future In campaign. All the more reason for politicians to represent the view held by the majority of voters and to test the limits of EU reform before forcing them to choose between In or Out.
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