James Forsyth

Immigration dominates first BBC EU debate

Immigration dominates first BBC EU debate
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The Lincoln-Douglas debate it was not, but we have just had the first prime time TV debate of this EU referendum. With Alex Salmond and Alan Johnson for In and Liam Fox and the UKIP MEP Diane James for Out speaking to an audience of 18 to 29 year olds in Glasgow.

Many in the audience wanted to complain about the tit for tat tactics of the two sides in this referendum campaign or to condemn the scaremongering by both sides; interestingly, they seemed very sceptical of the Treasury’s forecasts of economic pain if the UK left the EU. One audience member, though, seemed to object to the idea that he would have to think about the issue at all.

Alex Salmond was more interested in distancing himself from George Osborne and ‘Project Fear’ than anything else at the start of the debate. But later, he made a ridiculously simplistic argument that if Boris Johnson got injured he wouldn’t object to being treated by an EU national in hospital. But if the UK, post Brexit, did not have enough doctors, the immigration policy of the UK government would—logically—allow more doctors into the country as Liam Fox pointed out.

Fox was not helped by his debate partner. James has only been an MEP for two years and simply doesn’t have the same political experience as the rest of the panel, and it showed. In answer to a question about whether Brits would need visas to go to Spain post-Brexit, she replied ‘we just don’t know’—an admission that was immediately seized on by the IN campaign. More surprising, though, was how anonymous Alan Johnson was for large sections of the debate.

I suspect that both sides will be relatively happy with this debate. The Leave campaign have got through the one with the most potentially hostile audience without incurring any real damage. While the IN campaign will feel that Diane James’ ‘we just don’t know line’ has given them something to attack.

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