Nigel Farage accepts Clegg’s challenge to debate Britain’s EU membership
Ukip leader says ‘I’ve spent years being told I’m a nutcase. I’ve got to say yes’, after Lib Dem leader proposes head-to-head.
Nigel Farage has accepted a challenge from Nick Clegg to debate Britain’s membership of the European Union ahead of the May elections. The Ukip leader said he had “absolutely no choice” but to say yes after years of his Eurosceptic views being derided by mainstream politicians.
The terms of the debate are yet to be worked out, but Lib Dem sources said Clegg would have no problem with its being televised.
Farage said he wanted David Cameron and Ed Miliband to take part too, but did not think they would rise to the challenge. He accused the prime minister of running from the arguments, after Downing Street said Cameron was too busy running the country to take part.
However, speaking on LBC Radio, which will host the discussion, Farage said he would happily take on Clegg alone.
“I’ve battled on for 20 years. I’ve been laughed at, ridiculed, attacked, but at no point in the 15 years that I’ve now been an MEP, at no point have we ever had a full national debate about the merits or demerits of EU membership,” Farage said.
“Therefore, when the deputy prime minister says he wants to go public and have a debate with me on this issue, I have absolutely no choice. I’ve got to say yes because we need to have a national debate on what I think is the most important issue this country has faced for hundreds of years in terms of our constitution.
“I’m looking forward to the debate. I’ve spent years being told I’m a nutcase. Yesterday the deputy prime minister challenged the fruitcakes to take part in a national debate.”
Farage said he was now looking forward to the European elections, which are just over 90 days away, after suffering health problems that required major surgery.
Ukip is hoping to challenge Labour for first place in the May polls, and beat the Conservatives and Lib Dems convincingly.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, has warned his party that it could be almost eliminated in the elections under a rising tide of Euroscepticism.
Amid fears of a wipeout, Clegg told LBC on Thursday that he wanted to go head-to-head with Farage as “Ukip is the party of out, while the Lib Dems are the party of in”.
His challenge is an attempt to pick up pro-European votes from other parties, while the Tories are split on the issue and Labour’s position has been criticised for lacking clarity. It also puts David Cameron in an awkward spot, as the prime minister is anxious to avoid debating with Farage on television in the run-up to the general election in 2015.
Clegg’s acceptance of the Ukip leader as a legitimate debating partner will add weight to Farage’s argument that he should be allowed a platform in any televised leadership debates next year.
Throwing down the gauntlet on Thursday, Clegg said: “If Nigel Farage is either listening or looking at this programme I hope he would take up my challenge to debate, once and for all, publicly, should we be in the European Union, which I believe means that we have more people in work than would otherwise be the case, we keep ourselves safer because we can go after cross-border crime and terrorism, it means we can look after the environment in the way that we can’t on our own or do we do what Ukip want which is to pull ourselves out of the European Union and so jeopardise millions of jobs in this country?
“That’s the choice let’s have the debate out in the open and I am very happy and very keen to debate that with Nigel Farage directly.”
Labour demanded a head-to-head between Ed Miliband and David Cameron in the runup to the election next year, as the party played down the idea its leader would take part in the Clegg-Farage showdown.
“The priority for us is to ensure that there are debates agreed between the two prospective prime ministers of the country – Ed Miliband and David Cameron – at the time of the general election,” a spokesman said. “Anything else will be a matter for the negotiations after that is agreed.”