The leader’s debate gave a unique opportunity for our political class to show the public they meant business. I was originally concerned that there may be too many party leaders on the platform. With this in mind, I wanted to bring in to sharp focus the performance of UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage.
During the opening statements, which were conducted without interruption individually, Nigel Farage made a strong and persuasive argument to all those watching and listening. He distanced himself from the other parties by saying that they were all the same, all six established parties believe for example in Britain’s membership of the EU. This means of course that our laws are being made somewhere else. He then went on to explain to a captivated audience, that because of this support for the EU all of the parties supported mass unrestricted immigration into Britain. He then explained UKIP’s positive alternative saying he wanted ‘a trade deal with Europe, cooperating with them as friends, but make our own laws and take back control of our borders’. He then suggested that he wanted to put into place an ‘Australian style points system’ for immigration explaining it would give the British government the ability to choose who could come to Britain.
What was more interesting and insightful from the charismatic leader was his grasp on numbers; usually Mr Farage loves a ‘stat from Narnia’ and can be found making some outrageous claims. During the first question about the night he spoke quite candidly, with Nick Clegg listening very intently. He told the audience about how the UK had a £90 billion deficit, and cleverly reminded people of how and why the coalition came together. This assertion about the public finances bought glares from both Nick Clegg and PM David Cameron.
But it was his comments, and near melt down about the deficit that really got the audience engaged. I haven’t seen Mr Farage dissect numbers better than this and there was a calm authority about him. The audience was reminded of the mess left by Gordon Browns Labour with a National Debt of £850 billion. During a clash between Nick Clegg and Leanne Wood over the deficit figures Nigel got so frustrated he ended up calling out ‘can we get real’, a key moment for Mr Farage as he had surgically sliced through the numbers like a knife through hot butter.
Nigel explained rather than controlling this debt, the coalition had allowed it to rocket to £1.5 billion. This has the left the UK with repayment rates higher than our defence budget. A simply eye watering revelation from the Leader of UKIP. So this lead to a burning question for everyone watching, where would UKIP save some money?
Nigel laid out his parties plans for cuts to fiscal spending and I must admit I found it impossible to disagree with his points; £10 billion cut from the foreign aid budget, £10 billion saved from contributions to the failing EU by leaving, scrapping HS2 and saving £4 billion in this parliament and finally scrapping the Barnett formula and saving another £5 billion. Clear and concise answers from the only leader who seemed able to answer a direct question with a direct answer.
Then the agenda moved to our much loved and maligned NHS, the political football of British Politics. It is important to say from the outset that there has been a big debate inside of UKIP. Both Farage and his Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall have entertained the idea of further privatization and also an insurance based system. But the party has decided to commit itself to keeping the NHS in the hands of the public and free at the point of use. At least for now.
With this in mind I think Nigel was very clever to personalize his answer on the NHS straight away, attempting to soften his audience. He reminded people he had been in a ‘few scrapes’ and seemed genuinely quite emotional on the subject. He was clear where he would make changes to the NHS to make it more efficient. He pledged £3 billion of the money saved from exiting the EU would be invested into the NHS. He also highlighted an even larger issue with the growth of middle management inside the NHS of 48% since 1997. He got a big cheer from the studio audience when he announced that he would scrap hospital parking charges, and even drew a wry smile from the Leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon. This was because he mentioned that English tax payers were getting a little ‘cheesed off’ with money going to Scotland for free tuition fees and prescriptions.
Sometimes Farage can say some of the most sensible things I’ve heard and to this point I found myself in agreement with him, we then unfortunately witnessed the dark side of Farage, something more sinister and unforgiving. He couldn’t resist talking about so called ‘Health Tourism’ one of my biggest bug bears in British politics. Before I lay out my response to what Mr Farage said lets re live what he said; Nigel mentioned that so called ‘Health Tourism’ is costing the UK £2 billion every year, and asked the whole panel if they would agree that foreign workers should have insurance as a condition of entry. Now this point to be honest on the face of things does seem to be fair, but then he dropped the political bombshell.
He expanded on his point by stating that there are 7,000 cases of HIV every year in the UK. 60% of these cases he claims are not British Nationals. It’s important to understand that at this point Mr Farage had not sourced any of his stats from a reputable source. So to make these claims is extremely dangerous, Leanne Wood called it ‘scaremongering’.
It was his suggestion that people with this horrendous illness would not be allowed into the UK that really set alarm bells ringing for me, not to mention the stats! How can a political leader believe in selection by ability in schools (Farage wants to reestablish grammar schools). But not believe in selection by ability at the borders?
To a degree I can see new migrants in his Australian Points System requiring insurance as a point of entry gaining some traction. It’s not a bad idea. However after many years of austerity under the Tories and cuts to public services, how on earth are we going to be able to reinforce our borders? Especially if we start selecting by health at the border, it should surely be based on whether a person has a skill that we require and whether they can contribute to our society from day one. If you take Mr Farage’s figures as gospel, this amounts to 4,200 people entering the UK with this horrendous illness. He also claimed the drugs to treat these people would cost up to £25,000 per year. That would mean at this moment in time this is costing the UK tax payer (migrants included) £105 million. I don’t know about anyone else, but if we are going to spend that kind of money. I think it is well spent on treating people contributing to our economy from day one. Regardless of what illness it is. I say let’s select on ability Mr Farage, not health.
As for the debate on immigration, once upon a time you could not mention it. Because you would be attacked with rolled up copies of The Guardian, I expect after my comments earlier people may decide to roll up copies of The Daily Mail to hit me with. I am sick to the back teeth of the immigration debate. We had six pro EU parties on the platform and one leader who at least wanted to control our policy, but I implore the media and our politicians, can we please talk about something else…