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My enemy's enemy

Why the Liberal Democrats love UKIP, and how Nick Clegg may be the saviour of the United Kingdom.

It is a truism that in politics as in war, my enemy's enemy is my friend. This is being seen in Scotland right now, where Alex Salmond is rooting for a Conservative comeback in the opinion polls down south in the knowledge that the more likely a Tory government in 2015 appears, the more likely Scotland will say Yes to independence in September.

(It must be strange for David Cameron to know that the more likely it appears he will win the UK general election in 2015 the more likely it is it will be the last ever UK general election. The only person I can think of to have perhaps experienced similar emotions is Adolf Hitler in 1933.) Nevertheless, this truism is something that appears to have been forgotten in much of the commentariat's analysis of When Nigel Met Nick, round 2.

I must confess from the outset that I have not yet had the dubious pleasure of watching this intellectual joust between a somewhat posh, privately-educated, former City commodity trader, MEP and self-proclaimed man of the people, and a somewhat posh, privately-educated, former political advisor, MEP and self-admitted son-of-privilege. However, it is pretty clear that the general consensus was that the UKIP leader Nigel Farage trounced Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, leaving Farage 2 for 2, as the Americans like to say.

According to the opinion polls Nick Clegg lost the first debate. He appears to have changed tack for the second debate, resulting in even less success, leading some commentators to opine that in agreeing to debate Farage the Liberal Democrat leader had made an enormous error. He provided a fillip to the Kippers in advance of the European elections, and in the longer run damaged the pro-European cause and his own party, by reminding a broadly Euroskeptic British electorate that the Lib Dems, as well as being in favour of vivisection, chemical warfare, castration of homosexuals, denying women the vote, a 90% top rate of tax and the closure of all private television stations, they are an avowedly pro-European party. (Admittedly, I made up all the other policy positions apart from being pro-European, but given the current political mood in Britain, being pro-Europe or a Lib Dem is about as socially acceptable as any of the others).

So Calamity Clegg has made yet another catastrophic miscalculation, or so the theory goes. It's a theory that doesn't stand up to scrutiny however. In fact, quite the opposite: agreeing to debate Farage was a masterstroke by Clegg, in that it created a win-win for the Liberal Democrat leader and his party.

Lib Dem support remains in the doldrums, stuck at about the 10% core support level, having lost most of the soft-left vote after entering into a coalition with the Conservatives. This 10% is the hardcore Lib Dem vote, for a great many of whom the party's pro-Europeanism is part of its appeal and is something which accords with their own outlook. The prospect of UKIP success in May's European Parliament elections is something that will fill them with horror. The fact that Farage's Billy Bunter blather appears to have triumphed in the debates is likely to be a huge disappointment, so they will take action in the only way they know how in order to push back against the leaping Kippers: get out and vote.

In a traditionally low-turnout election such as that for the European Parliament, getting out the vote is even more important than in a general election, because the prospective return on investment is higher. Across England getting the Lib Dem core vote to the polling stations has the added (yet enormously important) bonus of its potential trickle-down effect on Lib Dem candidates in the council elections. Staunching the bleeding of the councillor base will provide an important psychological boost as well as preserving the on-the-ground infrastructure that will be a key element in successful Liberal Democrat defences of seats the party currently holds. The real return on investment on getting out the vote in May 2014 will be reaped in May 2015.

There is also another segment of the electorate out there that, while not core Lib Dem supporters, is amendable to the party's pro-European message and which may have been reminded of it during the debates: other Europeans. Given the party's relative low standing in the polls right now, if I were strategising the party's European election campaign, I would be putting resources into making sure that the Poles and the French and the Spanish and the Irish and the Czechs who are part and parcel of every town and community across Britain, but particularly in the South and East, are registered to vote and are being bombarded with literature telling them, in their own language where possible, that a vote for the Lib Dems is the only way to help ensure that the UK stays in the European Union.

These fellow European Union citizens will not have a vote in the referendum that David Cameron has promised for 2017 on whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU. The European elections are their opportunity to express their opinion: make this their referendum.

Brytania poza UE jest złe dla Wielkiej Brytanii i złe dla Polski! Głosować na Liberal Democrats!

La Grande Bretagne à l'extérieur de l'Union Européenne est mauvais pour la Grande Bretagne et mauvais pour la France! Votez Liberal Democrat!

Britain outside the EU is bad for Britain and bad for Ireland. Vote Liberal Democrat!*

You get the idea. It's not going to win massive numbers of votes and voters (because contrary to the popular belief there are not actually that many European migrants in Britain), but in whatever regions the party does manage to retain an MEP, it will be the last seat on the list, and the extra votes could just make the difference between scraping home the last seat and leaving empty-handed.

2009 West Midlands result; BBC
2009 West Midlands result; BBC

Consider the plight of the Green Party in 2009: in the East of England, just 16,000 more votes (1% of the vote), would have won them at extra seat at the expense of UKIP; in the South West 12,500 votes (0.8%) would have given them a seat that was in the end won by the Conservatives. If the West Midlands had had 7 MEPs in 2009, as it currently does (it was awarded an extra one in 2011 when the Lisbon Treaty came into force), an extra 1315 votes (0.1%) would have given the seventh seat to the BNP instead of the Tories.

Losing all its MEPs (unlikely but not impossible), would certainly wipe out any psychological boost that could be gained from not getting quite the kicking in the councils that had been feared and leave the party in bad shape looking ahead to the general election of next year. It'd be a small investment with a potentially pretty big return.

A further advantage from the debates for Clegg is that he got to try out two different debating styles in front of prime time(-ish) audiences in advance of the presumed pre-general election debates next year. Neither of them worked particularly well from what I have read, but that then gives him a year to work on it. Similarly the arguments in favour of Europe and the EU have been given a dry run and need, it must be said, some further fine-tuning.

But the real boost for the Lib Dems comes from the boost for UKIP. Politics is a very cynical game at times, and the bottom line is that the better UKIP does in 2015 the better it is for the Liberal Democrat Party. A plurality of UKIP support comes from former Tory voters: the more votes the Kippers smoke out of the Conservatives, fewer of the 38 seats where the Tories are breathing down Lib Dem necks will be lost. That is the real prize, and the plan appears to be bearing fruit.

What's more, by boosting UKIP and keeping the Tory vote down, the Liberal Democrats are helping to spike Alex Salmond and the SNP's guns in Scotland (a traditional Lib Dem stronghold though one in which coalescing with the Tories is viewed only slightly more preferably than interfering with animals).

According to a new poll out this morning, the referendum result in Scotland is getting close to, in the words of a famous Scot, squeaky bum time. The No campaign needs all the boost it can get, because momentum is clearly now behind Yes.

Which just goes to show that in politics my enemy's enemy's enemy also turns out to be my enemy. Or something.

*I could have translated this into Irish, but as the Dutch authorities discovered, the result would be that pretty much none of the intended Irish recipients would understand a word of it. Return to text