TV debates boost British eurosceptic leader

AFP , Thursday 3 Apr 2014

Farage, Clegg
Britain's Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg, standing next to UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage (L), is seen speaking during a debate on Britain's future in the European Union, in this photograph received via the BBC in London April 2, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

British eurosceptic leader Nigel Farage has bolstered his credentials as a credible political figure after two televised debates with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, commentators said on Thursday.

Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP) was once described by Prime Minister David Cameron as a "bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", but the debates showed that no party can dismiss their challenge now, political observers said.

Many had assumed that the blokeish Farage, who enjoys regaling journalists with stories in the pub, would be seriously exposed in the debates with the urbane europhile Clegg, leader of the coalition partner Liberal Democrats.

But Farage scored points with the public by claiming that the European Union's open borders had turned Britain's "white working class" into an "underclass".

Clegg described his opponent as a "dangerous fantasist" whose opposition to issues such as gay marriage left him out of step with modern Britain, but the majority of viewers were behind Farage.

Clegg also tried to attack Farage over the UKIP leader's reported comments that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the foreign leader he most admired, partly for Putin's "brilliant" handling of the Syrian conflict.

But a YouGov survey immediately after the hour-long debate showed 68 percent thought Farage had come out on top, compared to just 27 percent who favoured Clegg.

Even the left-leaning Guardian newspaper was forced to admit that "there is little doubt the zeitgeist is with Farage" and that his party could even win in European elections in May.

Another commentator, Toby Young, wrote on the website of the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper that Farage had won "convincingly" and suggested his seemingly unscripted demeanour served him well in TV debates compared to his rivals.

"Television rewards people who are comfortable enough in their own skin to just be themselves... and Farage is the only party leader who has that quality," he said.

The Liberal Democrats are defending 12 of Britain's 73 seats in the European Parliament, while UKIP has nine. At the last European elections in 2009, UKIP came second and the Lib Dems fourth.

But Farage's big challenge remains making a breakthrough in the British general election in May 2015 -- UKIP does not currently have a single seat in the House of Commons.

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