Will the Lib Dems reach for the eject button?

As Cameron and Clegg relaunch the coalition, the Lib Dems plan an early exit.

Two years on from their famous love-in at the Downing Street rose garden, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have chosen the appropriately sober setting of an Essex factory for their post-election "relaunch". All the talk is of the pair "renewing their vows" but that's not quite right. Cameron's betrayal of Clegg during the AV campaign meant that the marriage was dissolved long ago. It's not personal, it's just business, is the coalition's new mantra.

Despite Cameron's fear of his government being seen as a "bunch of accountants", the pair will insist that the coalition's raison d'être remains deficit reduction. As the PM will say:

Two years ago our two parties came together to form a strong Coalition. We agreed that our number one priority was to keep Britain safe from the financial storm and to rescue our economy from the mess left by the last Labour Government. That was and remains our guiding task.

But if deficit reduction is the coalition's "guiding task", it's worth pointing out that it hasn't been very good at it. The government borrowed £126bn in 2011-12, £10bn more than Osborne predicted in his "emergency" Budget, and the national debt is set to reach £1.4 trillion by 2014-15. Of course, it's hard to borrow less when the economy is shrinking. In this respect, the government's biggest mistake was to prioritise defict reduction above all else. As Keynes once remarked, "look after unemployment and the Budget will look after itself".

There will be some token references to growth in the speech, with Clegg promising a "renewed sense of urgency" and a "redoubling of our efforts" on getting more credit into the economy and building infrastructure. Yet the refusal of Osborne's "fiscally neutral" Budget to endorse stimulus meant that the real chance to boost growth was missed. Cameron and Clegg will insist that the damage done by the financial crisis was "greater than anyone thought" but to the voters, who have seen their living standards plummet at the fastest rate since the 1920s, this will just sound like another excuse.

Osborne's toxic Budget means that the pair can't even fall back on the old saw that "we're all in this together". Spying a political opportunity, Ed Miliband will also be in Essex today, calling for the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate and the repeal of the "granny tax".

The next election may still be three years away (although it doesn't feel like it, we're not even halfway through the coalition's term) but both parties already have their eyes on 2015. Two years ago, there was talk of a Tory-Lib Dem pact at the next election. Now, figures on both sides suggest that the coalition may not even make it that far. Today's Times (£) reports that the Lib Dems are considering withdrawing from the coalition "well before" May 2015 to allow the party to "reassert its independence". Given the scale of their losses last week (the Lib Dems now have fewer than 3,000 councillors, the lowest number since the party was formed in 1988), that's no surprise. As Matthew Oakeshott, Vince Cable's representative on earth, has warned, if the Lib Dems suffer more defeats like that one, they will not be able to fight the next election as a national party.

Senior Lib Dems say the party needs to leave the coalition "well before" May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder