Big beasts lock horns at the first EU referendum debate

The first high profile debate of the EU referendum campaign kicked off in style last night, as senior inners and outers fought it out in front of 2000 people at the London Palladium.

 

Nick Clegg joined former Labour Minister Alan Johnson on the “In” team, while Nigel Farage and Conservative Minister Andrea Leadsom represented team Brexit. Given that the event was hosted by The Guardian, some might have expected “Out” supporters to be outnumbered in the crowd, but this did not seem to be the case. In fact, when the speakers first walked – gladiator style – onto the main stage, the Brexit fans seemed to be in greater voice.  

The debate didn’t have any knock-out blows or major gaffes, but it was full of the heart and passion that people always ask for from their politicians. Clegg, no longer bound by his Coalition duties, seemed livelier than usual, and received many booming rounds of applause throughout the night – alongside occasional jeers. The debate’s moderator Anushka Asthana, the soon-to-be political editor of the Guardian, was quick to point out that Clegg received by far the most Twitter traffic on the night.

 

But it wasn’t just Clegg who seemed energized by the debate. Farage spoke with the familiar fire in his belly that he shows when discussing Europe – and while Leadsom and Johnson were more calm and measured, they clearly felt strongly about their respective positions.

The In-side protested that the trade deals struck by Norway, Switzerland and Greenland with the EU have been terrible for them.

“In Norway they call it fax democracy!” Clegg declared, describing how EU legislation is faxed to Norway, who have no choice but to implement it.

They also reacted scornfully to Leadsom and Farage’s attempts to paint the Out campaign as the compassionate side for immigrants from the Commonwealth.

“Anyone who thinks that Farage wants to leave the EU so that we can have more Indians and Pakistanis arriving in this country is living in a fantasy land!” Cried Johnson to great effect.

But the Out team landed some body blows as well. They continually highlighted the EU’s failure to negotiate trade deals with America or China, and argued that Britain would make much better deals alone.

Farage received his usual cocktail of boos and cheers when he voiced his fear that “77 million even poorer people” would flood into the Eurozone if Turkey joined the EU.

But his declaration that the UK have failed on all 40 occasions that they tried to stand up to the EU struck a chord with much of the audience.

In fact, the Guardian’s post-debate poll showed that Farage dominated the debate – with almost two thirds of voters choosing him as the night’s winner.

 

There are three months to go until the EU referendum, and there are bound to be many more heated debates like this one. Selling out such an enormous venue for a pre-referendum debate is almost unheard of. It seems like we can expect a high turn out on June 23rd.