Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have clashed over who is telling the truth about EU immigration.
The pair were taking part in a live TV and radio debate about whether Britain should stay in the European Union.
Mr Clegg – who wants Britain to stay in – said the UKIP leader’s claims about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might come to the UK were “simply not true”.
But Mr Farage denied this and said EU immigration was costing Britons’ jobs and driving down wages.
The exchanges on immigration were the most heated in the hour-long debate, which ranged across trade, the human rights act, the EU referendum, gay marriage and political integrity among other things.
BBC chief political correspondent Norman Smith said “there was no ‘knockout blow” and both men had given a good account of themselves and their case.
In a YouGov poll of 1,003 voters, some 57% thought that Nigel Farage had performed best in this evening’s LBC debate and 36% Nick Clegg.
Mr Clegg – who stared down the TV lens during the his opening statement as he did during the 2010 election debates – made jobs the centre of his pitch to the audience.
Mr Farage said Britain needed to regain control of its own laws and borders, saying the the European Union was a “failed project” and it was time to leave it.
He also hit out at the EU’s role in the Ukraine crisis, saying: “We should hang our head in shame – we have given false hope – the EU does have blood on its hands in the Ukraine.”
The issue of immigration sparked a fiery exchange between Mr Clegg and Mr Farage
The UKIP leader made a few jokes – but it was an earnest, and at times, impassioned battle of wits between two politicians who despite being former colleagues as MEPs in Brussels are diametrically opposed on the European Union.
Mr Farage attacked Mr Clegg for being part of the political elite who had “never had a proper job” but the pair mostly steered clear of personal attacks.
Mr Clegg brandished a UKIP leaflet from the Eastleigh by-election, highlighting its claim that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians were poised to come to the UK – a claim he said was wrong and a “scare” tactic.
Mr Farage said: “I am not claiming 29 million have the right to come to Britain, I am saying 485 million people have the total, unconditional right to come to this country.”
Mr Clegg hit back, saying immigration was good for the economy and denied the UKIP leader’s claims that it was uncontrolled.
“I am not prepared to see anyone lose their job on the altar of Nigel Farage’s anti-European dogma,” he said.
On trade, Mr Farage said “people like Nick don’t think Britain is good enough” to strike its own trade deals with countries like India and China.
The UKIP leader said the UK was now “the eurozone’s biggest export market in the world” and would hold “the whip hand” in obtaining good terms in any trade negotiations following exit.
But Mr Clegg said: Mr Clegg said: “It’s not the 1950s, we can’t turn the clock back.
“We have got new powers on the world stage – Brazil, China, India – and we get more clout by being part of the world’s biggest economy.”
At the start of the hour-long clash Mr Farage won the coin toss (of a pound coin) to decide who made their opening statement first, but said: “I will ask Nick to open the batting.”
Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage
He said he wanted “a Britain that leads in the world by standing tall in our own European backyard, a Britain prepared to work with other countries on the things we can’t possibly sort out on our own.”
Mr Clegg said: “We are better off in Europe – richer, stronger, safer – and that’s why I will fight to keep us in, for the sake of jobs, for the sake of our clout in the world, for the sake of Britain.”
But Mr Farage replied: “This debate is between a tired status quo defending a crumbling EU that frankly isn’t working any more, and a fresh approach that says let’s be friendly with Europe, let’s trade with Europe, but let’s not be governed by their institutions.”
The UKIP leader said that if Britain was voting now on whether to join the EU, it would be presented with the offer “to join a club that will cost £55m a day as a membership fee, and there will be thousands of new laws over which our own Parliament and you the electorate can make no difference, and mean an open border, unconditionally, to 485 million people from across the whole of Europe – many of them form very poor countries – who can come here to work and live and settle and bring their families”.
He said that the UK would also be told it would have to cut links with the Commonwealth and other English-speaking countries as a result of joining the club.
And he told the audience: “I know the result of that referendum: You wouldn’t join it.”
The first EU debate was hosted by radio station LBC. On 2 April, round two will be televised live at the same time on BBC Two.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has promised an in-out referendum if the Conservatives win the next election and Labour leader Ed Miliband, who says he will only sanction a referendum if further powers are handed to Brussels, have opted not to take part in the debates.
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Ashworth said Wednesday’s encounter was “a lightweight battle between two men who will never be prime minister”.