April 3, 2014 8:16 pm

Ukip ‘People’s Army’ takes up arms to fight main parties’ big guns

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Nigel Farage (L) and Nick Clegg in the second of two debates on whether Britain should stay in the EU©Getty

Ukip leader Nigel Farage (L) and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in the second of two debates on whether Britain should stay in the EU

After 120 minutes of relentless populism, nationalism and man-in-the-pub euroscepticism, Nigel Farage could sense victory: “Come and join the People’s Army,” he declared at the end of a second broadcast debate on Europe. “Let’s topple the establishment that led us into this mess.”

Come and join the People’s Army. Let’s topple the establishment that led us into this mess

- Nigel Farage

A few minutes later, the polls confirmed what most already knew: the UK Independence party leader had again beaten Nick Clegg in the most exhaustive political duels over Europe seen in Britain.

The question now gripping Westminster is: what happens next?

Against some expectations, Mr Farage did not implode under the television lights or crumple under the battery of economic “facts” thrown at him by Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and head of the self-declared “party of In”. Indeed, viewers were even more eurosceptic after Wednesday’s debate than before it started.

Fluctuating fortunes

Fluctuating fortunes
Bigger boost for Farage

The debates have bolstered Mr Farage ahead of May’s European parliament elections, fuelling his confidence that Ukip can outpoll Labour and Conservatives and send the Tories into another bout of panic about Europe.

But did Mr Farage’s debating triumph portend something more significant? Was it the rallying point of a populist, anti-establishment insurgency that could eventually take Britain out of the European Union, if David Cameron holds his planned in-out referendum in 2017?

Mr Farage’s team say they are “very much encouraged” and claim that in the second debate the Ukip leader was even more effective in fusing a large eurosceptic vote with an equally visceral dislike of the establishment, represented by the one-time outsider Mr Clegg.

But Ukip knows that winning two debates against Mr Clegg, leader of a party polling 10 per cent in opinion surveys, is very different to winning an EU referendum when Britain’s future in Europe is at stake.

Mr Farage knows that in a real European vote, his “People’s Army” will be ranged against most of Mr Cameron’s Conservative party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, big business and trade unions; even the Murdoch newspapers have not declared that Britain is “better off out”.

“It might end up with Ukip and the Daily Express against the rest,” said one Ukip insider. “We’d certainly have the “anti-establishment, underdog” thing going on and we’re helped by a massive decline in deference in society. It’s not unwinnable, but it would be difficult.”

While Mr Farage and his team basked in their triumph, Mr Clegg and other mainstream politicians went over the ashes of the debates, trying to work out what had gone wrong.

In the first debate Mr Clegg tried a cool, rational, fact-based approach; in the second he tried to inject passion and humour. Mr Farage won both debates, according to the polls, but triumphed more convincingly in the second.

It might end up with Ukip and the Daily Express against the rest

- Ukip insider

Danny Alexander, Lib Dem Treasury chief secretary, said Mr Clegg’s targeting of issues such as the economy, jobs, cross-border crime and climate change were right but that he was battling 20 years of “eurosceptic propaganda”.

“The debates showed how much work we pro-Europeans have to do get our arguments across,” he said.

Peter Mandelson, former Labour minister and EU trade commissioner, said the debates were just an opening skirmish in a much longer political war. “He and other pro-Europeans are embarking on a journey here.”

But he conceded that the pro-Europeans needed to win the fight by deploying facts, admitting that Mr Farage had proved remarkably adept at appealing to the head as well as the heart and was not to be underestimated.

“Farage was really rather good at deploying ‘facts’,” Lord Mandelson said. “Who knows if they were right or wrong but they sounded convincing. We have to be reasonable and passionate but also have facts at our fingertips.”

Farage was really rather good at deploying ‘facts’. Who knows if they were right or wrong, but they sounded convincing. We have to be reasonable and passionate but also have facts at our fingertips

- Lord Mandelson

However, David Cameron believes there are plenty of moderate pro-Europeans – including many in the business community – who share his view that Britain should stay in the EU, but that it needs to be fundamentally reformed.

The prime minister said a swath of those voters were not represented in the debates by the “extreme” views of Mr Farage and Mr Clegg, who slipped up when he said he expected the EU to look rather similar in 10 years’ time.

The prime minister believes that the “reform and referendum” strategy adopted by the Tories is the best way to halt Mr Farage’s advance, even if many Tory MPs are unlikely to be satisfied with any reforms negotiated by Mr Cameron.

Meanwhile Mr Clegg insists he was right to challenge Mr Farage: he hopes his defence of the EU will mobilise Lib Dem voters and perhaps win over the votes he needs to stop his party facing a wipeout of its 12 MEPs in May’s elections.

Mr Clegg said on LBC: “When I first challenged Nigel Farage, I was acutely aware that I am making an argument that hasn’t been heard for 20 years. I wasn’t going to reverse 20 years of mythmaking in two hours.”

But some Lib Dem MPs have voiced concern about their leader’s pro-European strategy. Andrew George, a Lib Dem backbencher, told the FT: “I hope Nick doesn’t think there is a constituency of enthusiastic pro-Europeans out there.”

After two hours of debate, Mr Clegg has discovered the limits of pro-European enthusiasm in Britain today. What remains to be seen is whether Mr Farage’s insurgency is just beginning or if it is already approaching its peak.

. . .

Countdown to Brexit

April 2014
Nigel Farage beats Nick Clegg in a television debate on Europe, according to polls, and declares: “Come and join the People’s Army.”

May 2014
Mr Farage believes Ukip will top the poll in the European parliament elections. David Cameron is braced for euro-panic in Tory ranks.

May 2015
General election. Mr Cameron is promising an EU referendum; Lib Dems and Labour unlikely to hold a plebiscite in the next parliament.

May 2015 to summer 2017
If Mr Cameron remains PM, intense period of British renegotiation including possible EU treaty revision.

Autumn 2017
Planned date for Tory in-out referendum on EU. Main political parties, big business and unions all expected to campaign to stay in. Will that be enough?

Late 2017
Political turmoil. If Mr Cameron wins referendum, anti-EU Tory MPs could rise against him. If he loses, could he stay in office?

2019-20
If Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty and decides to leave, it has two years to negotiate the terms of its exit, including a new trading arrangement

George Parker

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