A wet and slimy creature, and a dead fish. Photo:Getty
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Nick Clegg: not the best, not the worst. Just what we're stuck with

Clegg’s tactic for the election is to pitch his party as the necessary bulk needed to eke out a full government. Much like whoever did the budgeting in the Conservative manifesto, the Liberal Democrats are here just to make up the numbers.

Have you ever made a stew and realised that it’s woefully inadequate to feed the number of people for which it is intended? Or it’s managed one meal but won’t stretch to another, so you’re forced to pad it out with a tin of beans. Any old beans will do. Any bulky, flavourless carbohydrate.

Nick Clegg is that tin of beans.

Clegg’s tactic for the election is to pitch his party as the necessary bulk needed to eke out a full government. Much like whoever did the budgeting in the Conservative manifesto, the Liberal Democrats are here just to make up the numbers.

For all his claims that he doesn’t want “to prop up the two-party system”, propping it up is the all Clegg can possibly do. The Liberal Democrats used to present a legitimate third option; now even they will only offer you Labour or the Tories. They’re attempting to drive voters from smaller parties to the Big Two in the hope that they can attach themselves, limpet-like, to whomever can form a government.

It’s partly this reason why the policies of the Lib Dems simply don’t matter in this election. A party without policies, without personality, is a better coalition partner; it’s why you don’t dilute orange squash with gravy. Plus, the less they can talk about their manifesto, the less we are reminded of their headline policy from 2010. One is not inclined to vote for a man with an enormous £27,000 albatross visibly hanging around his neck.

Neither coalition with Labour nor the Tories would bring the Lib Dems true partnership, only watered down versions of whoever’s knee on which they sit. The Lib Dems do not propose to share government, merely to create a weaker version of someone else’s. Clegg explicitly wants to move policies to “centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle”, but who wants this? This is the reason margarita pizzas are always disappointingly served at social occasions. The point of democracy is not to please everyone by creating some mimsy, mealy-mouthed, middling government. If Clegg wants to end two-party politics, thinning out the policies of another party does nothing to achieve that. Only a government that represents all of the elected parties proportionally actually ends the two-party system. (I accept it is conceivably a little late in the day for Clegg to take this task on, but I suspect he might have some free time coming up.)

With Ukip a threatening streak of beetroot piss across the polls, the Lib Dems have become the anti-Ukip, the protest vote that vaguely helps the democratic process continue, but doesn’t drift in any particular direction. Damn him with faint praise it may, but if Clegg has one thing going for him - and he may - unlike Nigel Farage, a large proportion of the population don’t think he’s a dangerous lunatic. The Lib Dems have recognised that while few people might purposely vote for them shoring up a larger party, a lot of people would very strongly vote against any government borne aloft on Ukip’s shoulders.

Farage and Ukip’s election strategy is to be as flavoursome as possible. A deeply unpleasant flavour, but flavoursome nonetheless. Clegg meanwhile, dangles on his zipwire, the desperate image of a Head of Year trying to win over disdainful Year 11s on a post-GCSEs outing. One might call it tragic, but then you never caught Oedipus having a quick go on the Zorbs.

Now the Lib Dems paint him in a different pose, promising the Tories a heart and Labour a brain. (Ukip are presumably more than happy to help Dorothy go home.) I suspect that perhaps they could have thought this literary allusion through better, for now we have Clegg as the Wizard of Oz: a little man hiding in a cubicle, pretending to be more powerful than he is. An ineffectual balloonist, repeatedly foiled by a little dog. A huckster. A self-confessed humbug.

In 2010, I truly thought Clegg would change British politics. He did, just not in the way we suspected. Or necessarily wanted. He is desperately clinging to his party and his party is desperately clinging to its seats. For all he has and has not done with the Tories, I still do not quite believe Clegg to be a bad man. Just a very bad wizard.

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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