Clegg has gambled his party's future on another hung parliament

His decision to remake the Lib Dems as a centrist "party of government", rather than a centre-left outfit, could prove ruinous if the next election doesn't produce the right result.

This was the speech that many thought Nick Clegg would never deliver. Back in 2010, when millions of Lib Dem voters defected en masse to Labour, Westminster sages predicted that by 2013 he would be in retreat from British politics, preparing for a return to Brussels as the UK's new EU commissioner. But today Clegg stood before his party as a politician reborn, buoyed by the Eastleigh by-election, the economic recovery and the prospect of another hung parliament.

Of the six conference speeches Clegg has given as leader, this was by some distance the best. It was by turns witty, moving and self-deprecating. In a clarion call to Labour supporters in Tory-Lib Dem marginals to come home to his party, Clegg reminded us just how much worse a majority Conservative government would have been: "Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires - no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system - no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not. Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north - no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident." He pointed out that it was David Cameron who told him during the 2010 leaders' debate that the country couldn't afford a personal tax allowance of £10,000 and smartly took ownership of equal marriage, the coalition's greatest achievement and one that would have been impossible without Lib Dem support. And he reaffirmed his party's status as the surest defenders of civil liberties, the greatest champions of Europe and the most committed environmentalists.

The announcement of free school meals for all infant pupils was a masterstroke, drawing some of the sting from Labour's "cost of living" attack and cheering his party's universalist wing. How foolish of the Tories to press ahead with their discriminatory tax breaks for marriage, giving the lie to their claim that they wish to support all and any "hardworking families".

But there were two problems with Clegg's speech that he evaded, rather than confronted. The first, if we are entering a new era of hung politics, is the question of whether the Lib Dems view Labour or the Tories as their natural coalition partner. Clegg sought to present himself as agnostic between the two but the polls repeatedly show that it is the former that his party's activists and voters are drawn towards. In the case of Clegg, the reverse is the case. Today, he declared that "I don’t look at Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ask myself who I’d be most comfortable with, as if I was buying a new sofa." But his staff routinely brief that they crave a renewal of vows with Cameron. If the next election results in another hung parliament but both Labour and the Tories win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support his party risks a damaging schism. Jeremy Browne and David Laws will look towards Cameron, Vince Cable and Tim Farron to Miliband.

The second problem is that Clegg's positioning of the Lib Dems as a "party of government" is premised on the belief that another hung parliament is likely in 2015. It certainly appears more probable than it did last year, but recall that while even a seven-point lead wasn't enough for the Tories to secure a majority, a lead of just one-point will be enough for Labour. Clegg confidently ended: "Our place is in Government again." But if Miliband leads Labour into government after 2015, he will be left as the head of a marginalised party, bereft of members and seats (even now, the Lib Dems will struggle to hold onto more than 30), and discredited for a generation by collusion with the party that was for so long its greatest foe.

The Lib Dems' new raison d'être is to serve as a centrist party that takes office in order to ameliorate the extremes of Labour and the Tories. To this end, Clegg has been prepared to trade principle for power. For every one of the Tory policies that he prevented, one can name others that he enabled: the immigration cap, NHS privatisation, £9,000 tuition fees, the VAT rise, the abolition of the 50p tax rate, the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. In the trade-off between principle and power, the danger is that Lib Dems will lose both.

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. 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