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Debates 'a marathon not a sprint'

Nick Clegg has insisted he is "delighted" with the outcome of his Europe debates with Nigel Farage - despite polls suggesting he lost both by a wide margin.

The Deputy Prime Minister denied he was "bruised" by the televised clashes, which last night turned personal with the two men branding each other liars and fantasists.

Instead Mr Clegg claimed he "enjoyed" the sessions and was pleased that the issue of Britain's EU membership was being discussed more widely.

But Mr Farage claimed to have scored an "overwhelming Ukip victory" thanks to his rival's approach.

"Nick Clegg made the mistake that the career politicians have been making with Ukip over the past few years," he told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show.

"He decided, rather than dealing with the issue, to go for me and to go for Ukip's ideology - to paint us somehow as sort of mad ranting conspiracy theorists when all we want to do is run our own country.

"That line of argument from Clegg turned people against him."

Ukip and the three main parties are assessing the implications of the head-to-heads for European elections next months and the general election next year.

Mr Farage is generally seen as having boosted his standing after snap surveys last night found two thirds of viewers thought he had won the contest, compared to less than a third who favoured the Liberal Democrat leader. Last week YouGov suggested he had emerged victorious by 57% to 36%.

Opinion is divided as to whether Mr Clegg damaged his own standing, or shored up his core support by passionately making the case for the EU.

Speaking on his regular LBC radio phone-in this morning, Mr Clegg said he had been making an argument for engagement in Europe that "has not been heard for 20 years".

"I totally accept that what I say might not be popular, clearly as the polls have indicated overnight," he said.

"I don't feel bruised at all... The debate has now finally started. These were two hours of a debate that will now go on month in, month out.

"I understand given the myth making around the EU over the last 20 years it is quite a challenge to contest these myths and these settled perceptions.

"But I am delighted the debate has started because this is a marathon not a sprint."

Mr Clegg praised Mr Farage as a "good debater" - but said he was wrong to try to ignore the realities of the modern world.

"I think he is a good debater and he has got good straightforward lines which say, look don't worry, the complexities of the world, we can just get rid of it, all by just saying to hell with the rest of the world."

The Lib Dem leader also mocked David Cameron and Ed Miliband for dodging a confrontation with Mr Farage.

"At least I have the courage to get up and say this is what I believe," he said.

Mr Farage once again defended his stated admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin's handling of the Syria crisis - which came under attack from Mr Clegg during the exchanges.

"He is certainly a lot brighter than the college kids that are running foreign policy for this country," he said.

Mr Cameron distanced himself from the contests this morning, saying he disagreed with both men.

"It doesn't concern me because on this one I do not agree with Nick," the Prime Minister told the BBC.

"I didn't have a dog in the fight. The problem with this debate is both of the people taking part actually have quite extreme views.

"Nick thinks there is nothing wrong with Europe and we shouldn't have a referendum. Nigel thinks there is nothing right with Europe and we should get out and leave. They are both wrong."

Mr Cameron added: "The right answer is to be tough for Britain, renegotiate, get a better deal and then give people the choice in an in/out referendum and that is what I will do if I am Prime Minister after the next election, before the end of 2017."


From Belfast Telegraph