Maria Miller by Dan Murrell
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Commons Confidential: Maria Miller’s genuine draught

The Tory backbencher formerly known as the culture secretary had to queue at the bar like everyone else. Meanwhile Chuka and Tristram dodged the proles. 

Sunshine brings on to the Commons terrace MPs who are rarely seen with a drink in their hand. My snouts saw the Tory backbencher formerly known as the culture secretary Maria Miller queuing in Strangers’ Bar for two glasses of white wine and a pint of lager. Before that ghastly business of her expenses, the Basingstoke MP would have had a special adviser to fetch and carry her beverages. Needs must and all that, so there was Miller, patiently waiting her turn with hoi polloi from politics. If she had glanced over her shoulder, she might have spilled her drinks. Immediately behind the skewered ex-minister was the Bassetlaw Bruiser, John Mann, Miller’s smiling assassin. Revenge
is a drink best drunk cold.

Members of Labour’s northern working-class contingent grumbled into their beers during a rare sighting of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt on the terrace. A blabber recounted how hackles were raised by the party posh boys strolling past the proles to sit at a table at the far end, near Big Ben. The northerners speculated (groundlessly, I’m sure) that Umunna and Hunt were plotting against Ted Miliband, despite the Obama adviser David Axelrod’s £300,000 city break in London. MPs arguing that the exclusion was social, not political, claimed victory when the Tory banker Kwasi Kwarteng, one of Cameron’s brigade of Old Etonians, pulled up a chair to join the posh boys.

Observed striding through Portcullis House with a My Little Pony spring in her step was Claire Perry. It took this column’s squealer a few moments to compute what gave the not-so-humble whip the Katie Price air of attention-seeking. Swinging ostentatiously at Perry’s side was a ministerial red box, the ultimate political Viagra. Except whips aren’t presented with red boxes. The job requires charm and thumbscrews, not a leather document case. Was Perry carrying the bag for another minister? If so, she was so close yet still so far from a coveted box of her own.

The union bods Tony Burke and Allan Black deserve a footnote in the AstraZeneca-Pfizer battle. My man at the business committee giggled when the brothers plopped themselves down immediately behind the US drug company’s financial alchemist, Ian Read, after giving their evidence against the proposed snatch to the committee. The seats are ordinarily reserved for advisers. The union occupation prevented Pfizer’s team from passing notes to Read, who was up next. As sit-down protests go, it worked comfortably.

Labour MPs voting for Rory Stewart as chair of the defence committee because he’s an Old Etonian may have gifted victory to a Tory cattily called “Florence of Arabia” behind his back.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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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