Ed Miliband clearly thinks Nigel Farage has as much business on the stage for the General Election leadership debates as Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande. “I am not that interested in Nigel Farage,” said Mr Miliband when asked if Ukip should be in the leadership debates. For his part, Mr Farage will claim – one would assume as loudly and vehemently as possible – that he should be in the debates, citing the likely strong performance of Ukip in the upcoming European elections and his performances during the last fortnight, where he’s considered to have wiped the floor with Nick Clegg.
Mr Miliband’s priority, unsurprisingly, is going head-to-head with David Cameron, given that one of these two leaders will, in all likelihood and barring the totally unexpected, be taking up or retaining residence in 10 Downing Street in little over 13 months’ time. But Mr Miliband perhaps doth protest too much in claiming he’s not interested in Nigel Farage. On the contrary, he – like Messrs Cameron and Clegg – should be thinking about the consequences of sharing a stage with the Ukip leader next year.
Over the course of two performances against Nick Clegg, Mr Farage has demonstrated a capacity to keep up on detail but retains a populist appeal that is not dissimilar to what served Mr Clegg so well in 2010 when he was the undoubted underdog and comparative unknown. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband will be acutely aware that Mr Farage could very well command the stage if allowed onto it in 2015 by offering a more emotional appeal to voters without the baggage of being a party of either government or opposition. This could present particular problems for Mr Cameron: as Benedict Brogan has noted in the Daily Telegraph, Ukip has the potential to take votes off the Tories, which could be critical in marginal seats.
Mr Farage needs to be in the debates as it will provide his party with the single biggest bout of publicity they’re likely to get during the election campaign. Should he be in the debates? It looks unlikely at present – and let’s not forget that the Green Party won’t be taking part. And while they don’t have Ukip’s polling numbers, they do have an MP.
It’s a story that will continue to run, but don’t be surprised if Mr Farage isn’t in the debates next year. There are rumours Mr Cameron isn’t keen on debates full stop. Nick Clegg might not want a third round against Mr Farage. And despite his comments, Mr Miliband probably isn’t quite as dismissive of the Ukip leader, the additional competition, and the threat it might pose as it might appear.