Last night’s TV debate on Europe between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was expected to be a score draw. Both men had strong arguments. Both delivered their message with passion. Both gave effective closing statements.
So why did the Deputy Prime Minister lose the debate so badly, with more than two-thirds of viewers naming Farage the clear winner?
- Listening to Clegg was like drinking from a power hose. Pace of delivery is a fundamental element of good performance, yet the Deputy PM barely paused for breath. The more rattled he got, the faster he went, reeling off statistics, gabbling his words and leaving the viewers no time to compute and appreciate his key points. It was exhausting.
- His attack lines failed to resonate. Clegg repeatedly accused Farage of “wanting to turn back the clock”, “living in a fantasy world”, and peddling “a con”. Yet to many viewers – regardless of their opinions on the issue – Farage was clear in explaining how an exit from the EU could be achieved. Clegg was on much stronger ground when he attacked Farage on the specifics – such as the UKIP leader’s opposition to gay marriage and intervention in Syria.
- His jokes were awful. When Clegg referred to Farage’s admiration for the Russian President and said, “If I’m in, he’s Putin”, there was a horrible silence as the audience tried to work out if what they’d just heard was meant to be funny and, if so, how. Even Peter Kay would have struggled to raise a titter with such a dreadful line.
- He got off to a bad start. In his opening statement, Clegg addressed the wrong camera, so the viewers lost eye contact right away. I assume this wasn’t Clegg’s fault, and that he’d been given a bum steer by the producers. If I were Clegg, I’d be livid, as first impressions are vital.
- He chose the wrong opponent. This debate was Clegg’s idea. Farage merely accepted the invitation. Was Clegg complacent? Does he have such contempt for Farage’s arguments that he assumed they would unravel in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of an hour-long TV debate? If so, he miscalculated badly. Farage is a charismatic, knowledgeable performer, who has single-handedly catapulted his party from being, in David Cameron’s words, “a bunch of fruit cakes”, into the mainstream. Those of us who remain to be convinced that Britain would be better off out than in have a powerful opponent on our hands.