UK Politics

EU debate with Nigel Farage will be 'tough for Nick Clegg'

Nigel Farage Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigel Farage has accepted Nick Clegg's offer of a TV debate on Europe

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg faces a "tough gig" debating UK membership of the European Union with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a fellow Lib Dem minister has warned.

But Simon Hughes said Mr Clegg was "hugely qualified" for the job.

On Friday, Mr Farage accepted the Lib Dem leader's offer of a debate, saying he could "hardly wait".

But Conservative former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine described Mr Clegg's challenge as "a misjudgement".

In his weekly phone-in show on LBC radio last week, Mr Clegg described the Lib Dems as the "party of 'in'", meaning it was the most pro-European of the major parties at Westminster.

He challenged Mr Farage, support for whose anti-EU-membership UKIP has surged in recent opinion polls, to a "public, open debate".

Mr Farage accepted, saying it was "the most important issue this country has faced for hundreds of years".

'Great television'

Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, Justice Minister Mr Hughes said: "Of all the people that's equipped to know the history and the workings of the EU and its benefits, and has also had to argue this case lately, I think Nick is hugely well-qualified.

"He can speak as a solid Brit who understands the benefits. I think it will be great television."

Mr Hughes added: "It will be a tough gig and he knows that and Nigel is a difficult opponent but Nick has never been afraid. He wouldn't be in government with the Tories if he was afraid of tough gigs."

But Lord Heseltine, who is a pro-European, told Sky News that Mr Clegg should not publicly take on Mr Farage.

He said: "I wouldn't do it if I was him (Mr Clegg). I think that it's a misjudgement frankly to equate the leadership of a party which is part of government with a protest group, particularly a protest group which frankly is more about immigration than it is about Europe."

He said opponents of UKIP should stop "talking about the United Kingdom Independence Party and start talking about the United Kingdom isolationist party".

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised, if the Conservatives win the 2015 general election, to hold an in/out referendum on the UK's EU membership by the end of 2017.

This, Mr Cameron says, would follow a full renegotiation of relations with Brussels.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU had to show more "flexibility".

Ahead of a visit to the UK later this week by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he described Germany as the "most important partner" on seeking reform because of its economic strength and key role in the eurozone.

Mrs Merkel will address both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, and Mr Cameron is expected to raise the issue of overhauling the EU's immigration rules to deal with "benefit tourism".

Mr Hague said: "We support the principle of the free movement of workers, and many British people have rightly taken advantage of that in the rest of Europe.

"But we don't support people moving from one country to another because of the incentives of different benefit systems."

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