Nigel Farage’s strong performance in Wednesday’s live debate on Europe has reawakened Tory fears that Ukip could split the eurosceptic vote at the next election and cost David Cameron victory.
A snap YouGov poll conducted after the broadcast duel found that 57 per cent thought the leader of the UK Independence party leader had won the argument, compared with 36 per cent who backed the pro-European Liberal Democrat leader.
That prompted Rupert Murdoch to claim that Mr Cameron would be “dead meat” after the 2015 general election unless he strikes a deal with Ukip.
Mr Murdoch, proprietor of newspapers including The Times and The Sun, was impressed by Mr Farage’s performance, while several Tory MPs expressed anxiety that the MEP was snatching eurosceptic votes from the party.
“Ukip, Farage still making progress,” the staunchly eurosceptic News Corp chairman said on Twitter. He added: “Without a deal Cameron will be dead meat after 2015 elections. Prepare for Radical Labour.”
The prime minister, who fell out with Mr Murdoch over the phone hacking affair, has made it clear there will be no electoral non-aggression pacts between Tory candidates and their Ukip opponents at the next election.
Bill Cash, the veteran Tory eurosceptic MP, said Mr Farage was “splitting” the anti-EU vote in such a way that it would let in a Labour government at the next election. “He was trying to take away the votes in our marginal seats, when we are the only people who can deliver the policy,” he said.
Peter Bone, another eurosceptic Tory MP, said he wished Mr Cameron had been in the debate to remind voters that only a Conservative government would deliver an in-out EU referendum. “It would have been good to be there to tell them we’re the only ones who can offer an answer,” Mr Bone said.
Mr Cameron defended himself against this charge on Thursday, saying: “I take part in debates every day of my life. I take part in a pretty lively debate every week at PMQs. I go on radio and TV to make the case for my policies.
Both Mr Farage and Mr Clegg felt the debate had served their purpose in reaching a wider audience, with 1.3m viewers watching on Sky.
The Lib Dems have the support of only 10 per cent or less in recent opinion polls and one of Mr Clegg’s advisers said: “There were 36 per cent of people who thought Nick won: if we can get some to vote for us, that’s a victory.”
Lib Dems were buoyed by figures showing more voters in favour of staying in the EU than leaving, but YouGov found that Mr Farage managed to cut the gap between the two from six points to just three during the course of the debate.
There was some sense among Lib Dems that their leader needed to show more passion in the next debate, having chosen to remain aloof and statesmanlike for most of Wednesday’s event. One senior party MP said: “He needs to keep cool – no aggression, but we need lots of passion.”
But the exercise largely succeeded in its aim of motivating Lib Dem MPs, supporters and activists. Sir Menzies Campbell, the former party leader, said: “I doubt very much if Nick Clegg persuaded any Ukip supporters, but that, so far as I know, was not part of the strategy.”
One senior party MP said: “We get hammered for being pro-European anyway, so we might as well make a virtue out of it. You might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”
Ukip officials, meanwhile, heralded their leader’s very appearance in the debate as a breakthrough. They were delighted when Mr Clegg defended his party’s position on a European referendum by pointing to the “small print” – something they said showed Mr Farage’s authenticity in sharp relief.
However, that authenticity also got the Ukip leader into hot water when he said the EU had “blood on its hands” over its actions in Ukraine. Mr Farage was unrepentant on Thursday despite a storm of criticism, insisting he was right all along.