David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A pledge by Cameron to avoid another coalition would put pressure on Miliband to do the same

Labour tribalists and the media would immediately demand that Miliband follow the PM and promise to govern alone after May 2015.

Confronted by his truculent backbenchers and Labour's stubborn poll lead, it is not hard to see why David Cameron is reportedly considering the dramatic step of ruling out  a second coalition with the Lib Dems after May 2015. Such a pledge would reassure those Tory MPs who have long suspected that he prefers governing with Nick Clegg's party to governing alone, and would allow Cameron to make a fresh appeal to an electorate increasingly hostile to hung parliaments (a recent MORI poll found that 65 per cent believe they are bad for the country). When Lord Ashcroft asked voters to rank their preferred outcomes in 2012, just 13 per cent said they would like to see another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, compared to 31 per cent for a Conservative government, 20 per cent for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition and 36 per cent for a Labour government. 

A promise to avoid another coalition would enhance what Tim Montgomerie has called the Tories' "butterfly moment": the moment they decouple from the Lib Dems and fly in search of a majority. As he wrote in 2012: 

There are many drawbacks of Coalition government but there is one enormous advantage.

At the next election – for the first time since World War II – the government will not be up for re-election. Neither of the two parties in the current government can run away from what the Coalition has achieved or failed to achieve but both parties can credibly say that people haven’t had a Conservative or Liberal Democrat government. As one of the two bigger parties in British politics this opportunity is obviously more important for the Conservatives than the Lib Dems. David Cameron will be able to appear before the British electorate and urge them to give him the chance to govern alone for the first time.

David Cameron’s team should prepare carefully for this coalition caterpillar to Tory butterfly moment. It is an opportunity for a fundamental relaunch. An opportunity to describe how a Conservative-only government will be superior to continuing coalition government and to the Labour alternative. The relaunch needs to convey strength. Strength to deliver the bold economic reforms Britain needs and strength to protect Britain’s social contract. Stronger than coalition government with all of its inherent tensions and stronger than a Labour government led by Ed Miliband. Getting this butterfly moment right – making it a big event – is huge for the Conservative chances at the next election.

One factor that has been largely overlooked this morning is the effect such a pledge would have on Labour. A formal promise by Cameron to avoid entering a coalition would immediately lead to pressure from the media and Labour tribalists for Ed Miliband to do the same. While Miliband has emphasised again in the last week that he is fighting for a majority (not least because, as the polls suggest, he has a good chance of achieving one), he has refused to rule out forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. Given the precedent set by May 2010, and the dictum that it is never wise to rule anything out in politics, this has been viewed as the right decision.

But a pledge by Cameron to govern alone, if the Tories are the largest party after May 2015, would sharpen the dilemma. The PM would seek to portray Labour as "weak" for refusing to rule out working with the Lib Dems (although this would rather undermine his attempt to promote the coalition's record) and would appeal to voters to deliver a "strong" Conservative government. If the polls are tight,  it is a message that could resonate. The hope in Labour is that the party will have a large enough lead to be confident of winning a majority, but Cameron's latest gambit will force Miliband's party to re-evaluate its strategy. 

As for the Lib Dems, their plan to appeal for another term in government, to ensure both a "strong economy" (which Labour, they say, cannot be trusted to deliver) and a "fair society" (which the Tories cannot guarantee) would be destroyed if both parties ruled out forming coalitions in favour of governing alone (perhaps pursuing "the Wilson option" of a second election in the same year). But it is worth bearing in mind what one Liberal Democrat recently described to me as "the nuclear option" of bringing down a minority administration by refusing to support its first Queen's Speech (discussed by Mark Thompson on The Staggers). Whether such an outcome would do more harm to the Lib Dems or to the governing party is another calculation all sides will have to make in advance of May 2015. 

P.S. Here, incidentally, is what a spokesperson for Lib Dem president Tim Farron told The Staggers: 

This just makes him [Cameron] seem desperate.  I wonder if this pledge is another 'cast iron guarantee' from him?  I think rather than political positioning and working to shore up his vote, he should get on with running the country.  That is what Tim and his Liberal Democrat colleagues plan to do.  We should leave future coalitions to the voters and see what electoral arithmetic they give us in 2015.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.