Nick Clegg triumphs at PMQs

Breaking news: he really believes this stuff.

From the Commons chamber.

Nick Clegg today became the first Liberal to respond to Prime Minister's Questions since the PMQs sessions began in the early 1960s, and the first to address the House on behalf of a PM since Lloyd George in the 1920s.

With David Cameron away in the United States and Conservative and Lib Dem spin doctors sitting side by side in the Press Gallery, Clegg stood in for the first time since his party took power at the May election, with Jack Straw standing in for the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman.

Straw asked about Afghanistan, and whether Cameron's expressed desire to see British troops coming home by 2014 was unconditional. Clegg said the pledge was for 2015.

Straw claimed that Clegg's answer did indeed imply that the pledge was "conditional", but the Lib Dem leader said clearly: "We will see combat troops home by 2015."

Straw moved on to ask about the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, which was refused early on by the coalition, although it has now been revealed by the Financial Times that the government wrongly accused the company's directors of being unwilling to sell more equity to private investors. However, Clegg quickly diverted the exchange on to Peter Mandelson, before the Speaker intervened to say it was not relevant. Straw also asked Clegg about marriage tax breaks, which the Lib Dems previously opposed.

The discussion moved on to the economy more widely, with Clegg quoting Peter Mandelson's diaries as reporting that Alistair Darling wanted to raise VAT as the new government has since done.

Straw began to lose his voice as he shouted at Clegg, and was himself shouted down. Clegg said he needed "to go away and practise a bit more".

There was confusion as Straw got up to ask a final question but the Speaker called the next MP, while Straw stood at the despatch box shaking his head and indicating he had one more question. The Speaker, John Bercow, said he thought Straw had had his allotted questions, but then corrected himself and called Straw once more.

The question was along the same lines as before, but Clegg got the better of the exchanges by saying he hoped that Straw would one day account for his involvement in "the illegal invasion of Iraq". It was interesting to note the ferocity of Clegg's attack, given that he was sitting next to two ardent supporters of the "illegal invasion", William Hague and George Osborne.

Clegg later claimed that Britain has inherited from Labour not just a "fiscal crisis", but also a "social crisis", with social mobility falling.

There was momentary silence when Kate Green, the impressive new Labour MP, asked about a constituent in Stretford and Urmston who suffers from septicaemia, pneumonia and MRSA and is wheelchair-bound, yet faces a medical test in order to receive disability benefit under this government. Clegg defended the plan, claiming to have met constituents who actively wanted such tests to clarify their position in relation to benefits.

Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour MP, asked for a total reconsideration of Britain's strategy in Afghanistan, amid the deaths and opinion polls in that country showing that western involvement is not working, instead of a plan to withdraw in another five years' time. Clegg said he disagreed but admired Corbyn's "consistency" on the issue.

Overall, Clegg more than held his own in a rowdy House, and showed himself more than capable of enthusiastically defending the actions of the new Tory-led coalition government.

The Deputy Prime Minister will however continue to face questions over the series of U-turns his party has performed since entering government. Today, though, he sailed through without much in the way of effective, coherent criticism from the Labour front bench, whose need for a new leader is increasingly apparent.

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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