How the Westminster Village media is still struggling with concept of coalition

It can be surprisingly easy to excite some journalists. Today is a case in point. Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions. During his exchanges with Jack Straw (who was standing in for Labour’s Harriet Harman), the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the invasion of Iraq as “illegal”.

To most people watching this is not a surprise. The Lib Dems’ opposition to the Iraq war, which was supported by both Labour and the Tories, is pretty well-documented, I think it’s fair to say. The fact that the Lib Dems and Conservatives have reached a coalition agreement does not alter the past, nor does it alter politicians’ individual views. Why should it?

And yet the response from some journalists has been to label this a “gaffe” – a term otherwise known as a politician saying something he believes which a journalist hopes to be able to spin into a story.

Indeed, it’s interesting to see how a story like this can develop. For example, the first notice I can see taken of Nick’s “illegal” comment was by the Spectator’s James Forsyth. While praising the Deputy Prime Minister’s performance he noted:

Clegg has long called the invasion of Iraq illegal. But it is a different matter to do so when standing in for the Prime Minister and speaking from the Treasury bench in the House of Commons. That implies it is the official position of the government, with all that entails.

I’m not entirely sure it does imply that. But it’s interesting how this musing by Mr Forsyth becomes concrete fact by the time The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland refers to it:

As some Tory observers have already noted statements offered at the dispatch box during PMQs have the status of government policy. Are we now to understand that the coalition regards the 2003 invasion as “illegal”?

I think Mr Freedland’s question can comfortably be added to John Rentoul’s ever-expanding list of ‘Questions to which the answer is no’.

But first prize for hyperbolic over-egging the pudding has to go to the Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh, who suggests today was the ‘Worst day yet for the coalition’, and then lists a desperately thin series of speculative and pedantic snippets to justify his OTT-ness.

I have just started reading Nicholas Jones’s absorbing account of the general election, Campaign 2010. He makes the telling point of quite how out-of-the-loop the media commentariat were during the creation of the coalition, quite how irrelevant to the whole process they were.

It strikes me they’ve never really caught up, perhaps never wanted to. The Coalition doesn’t fit within journalists’ trite-and-tested formula that ‘government splits’ are news. Yet everyone knows the government is split. The public understands there are two different parties in government (compared with two different factions during the Blair/Brown years) and doesn’t expect us always to agree, and certainly not on issues which divided us in the past, such as Iraq.

The media’s inflated response to Nick Clegg’s utterly unsurprising statement that the Iraq war was “illegal” tells us much more about the banal quality of political reporting in the Westminster Village than it does about supposed tensions in the Coalition.

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56 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Jul '10 - 6:49pm

    “But it’s interesting how this musing by Mr Forsyth becomes concrete fact by the time The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland refers to it:”

    Eh?

    As far as I can say both Forsyth and Freedland are stating it as fact, not musing. It seems a reasonable enough position Why else would Clegg have issued a “clarification” otherwise?

    Apparently he also had to issue a clarification after saying that Yarl’s Wood was to close, when in fact it’s only the Family Unit that will close.

    It’s no great surprise, considering how often he had to extract his foot from his mouth when in opposition.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Jul '10 - 7:28pm

    “We clearly have different understandings of the word ‘implies’.”

    Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the person using the word is “musing”.

  • B*ll*cks.

    He made + repeated 2 statements at the despatch box which were factually incorrect – and since retracted. Never mind Iraq – Yarslwood?

    This is nothing to do with this teenage sub-plot of ‘no-one undertands us’.

    This blog is fast becoming delusional.

  • Rob Sheffield 21st Jul '10 - 7:39pm

    “And yet the response from some journalists has been to label this a “gaffe” – a term otherwise known as a politician saying something he believes which a journalist hopes to be able to spin into a story.”

    Er: a ‘gaffe’ (or ‘blunder’ or ‘error of judgement’ or ‘faux pas’ if you prefer) = representing the government in parliament (a government of TWO parties as many never stop trying to have us believe) and using an argument and associated terminology that is contra the current settled *government* view substituting it with pre election LD accusations.

    So that various members of the cabinet (including the FS) and No 10 then had distance themselves.

    All for a cheap party political partisan insult. Dear dear dear…

  • Paul Griffiths 21st Jul '10 - 7:50pm

    I think a lot of people, within and outside the party, are struggling with the concept of coalition. And it’s unsurprising that they should, for we are in unfamiliar territory. My irritation is with those who are not struggling at all, because they believe that nothing has changed, or needs to.

  • Paul McKeown 21st Jul '10 - 7:50pm

    @Cllr Mark Wright

    Yes, please! 😉

  • Factually inaccurate?

    Stephen – you may like to play semantics with the comment on the hateful Iraq war being illegal. You may like to argue that he was implying rather stating, or even musing. You may even like to claim that Clegg standing at the despatch box and giving opinion doesn’t relate to policy and therefore absolves him of all responsibility. You may like to claim that that is his own view and nothing else and shouldn’t be read as such.

    Regardless of your or I opinion on the war – which I’ll assume isn’t that different – Is it established, in fact, either in law or otherwise, that the war is illegal? If it is only opinion why the Hell is he using it in an official capacity to attack an opponent? Why did Number 10 have to ‘clarify’ his statement if it was acceptable for this behaviour to them? His Coalition bedellows – including his boss – voted for the war for heavens sake! Fact or opinion – he’s acting naively.

    As for Yarl’s Wood – do me a favour. Your excuse for your leader seems to suggest that for him, being accurate isn’t necessary. Clear in the context of his reply? Eh? When did this blog become the home for Nick Clegg apologists?

    The point of being a leader is to be on top of your brief. The Coalition is giving the impression of incompetence daily with these easily avoidable mistakes. That you and your colleagues won’t face up to it on this blog lessens you.

  • But hasn’t David Cameron repeatedly made statements that Lib Dems don’t agree with at PMQs (e.g. all the stuff about marriage tax breaks)? I don’t see why the goverment had to issue a statement saying Clegg was speaking in ‘personal capacity’ – shouldn’t they have merely made it clear this was the opinion of the Lib Dem part of the coalition? Surely this is allowed…

  • Richard Hill 21st Jul '10 - 9:10pm

    It certainly makes question time a lot more intresting. A mixture of goverment policy, lib-dem views and Nick learning the job. Has life ever been better. The odd, so called gaff seems to generate a lot of discussion, clarification and developement of thoughts by which we all learn more about what people really think. Let there be more of it. It is just what politics needs.

  • I thought collective responsibility applied when you are in government, and especially if you are Deputy Prime Minister.

    Clegg and others may hold the opinion that the Iraq war was illegal but that doesn’t make it a fact. Much as I wish that we had never invaded Iraq – and I applaud the Lib Dems for consistently opposing the move – in my opinion, it wasn’t illegal. For example, the 1991 ceasefire was contingent upon full Iraqi compliance; UN Resolution 678 was still in force and Saddam Hussein had not complied with it. To say it was no longer effective because it was 13 years old is spurious. If you follow that argument most of our domestic laws would be no longer in force.

    This thread does seem delusional. The Liberal Democrats are in deep, deep trouble, and your poll ratings are slipping almost daily (YouGov suggested 14% yesterday). When Clegg was ruminating about being the first Liberal answering PMQs in about ninety years, he should have been reflecting on how the Tories destroyed the Liberals by pulling the plug on an earlier coalition in 1922. History may be about to repeat itself. He might wonder why Lord Ashcroft is commissioning opinion polls in marginal constituencies if the next election is nearly five years away. Are the Tories going to call a snap election when they are sure that the Lib Dems have been totally discredited?

    A wag on MSN Politics posted this in the last few minutes: “Collectors might find it profitable to accumulate souvenirs of the Liberal Party before it disappears from our ken.” Sadly, he could be right.

  • allentaylorhoad 21st Jul '10 - 11:02pm

    Why did Cameron go to the USA? Not to teach Obama a history lesson on the Second World War, that’s obvious. Perhaps his family has investments in BP, or maybe it was to secure the release of Conrad Black!!

  • I’m not so much concerned by whether or not Clegg’s statement on Iraq was a gaffe or not. I’m concerned that he felt the need to make a bold distinction between the Lib Dems and the Tories, just for a change. And the subject which he chose to make that distinction was – Past history!

  • I’d rather have gaffes than robotic politricians and overall I think Nick done fairly well well for his first appearance in this role, considering the barracking from the usual suspects who don’t do themselvers any favours. However, it must be said that the current polls are worrying (13% tronight) , though need to be fixated with them at this point and a few weeks since we’ve had a non You Gov survey.

    Whilst the party can’t get everything it wants really need to trumph the Liberal achievements more as at the moment the Conservatives seem to be getting much of the credit and little of the blame with the public of course sometimes this can happen in coalitionsand perhaps the Lib Dems have been seen more as the bearers of the bad news. Clearly if the trend continues something needs to change or there could well be tensions. However, I see that some of the council results are more promising. Really don’t think Cameron would call a snap election in the current climate as things could easily turn around again, as happened with Brown in 2007.

  • If Mr Clegg wasn’t speaking for the government, what was at the disptach box for?

  • C’mon, the coalition is in chaos. Those at the highest level of government are contradicting each other over Afghanistan, the legality of the Iraq war, Cable’s proposed graduate tax, and whether or not all or just a part of the Yarl’s Wood detention centre is to close. While this is going on, Cameron is in the USA displaying his ignorance of the Second World War. Far from lasting five years, it will be a miracle if this coalition holds together for more than five months!

  • Bugger Collective Responsibility. It’s time for more honesty. More candidness please Cleggy. I don’t care what’s perceived as protocol. Aren’t we supposed to be engaging in ‘new politics’?

  • And Bert, i’m sorry but there will be a debate in gvmt and i think that, far from disagreement and debate being a bad thing, it’s actually something that should be welcomed. Why does the media have to present conflict in politics as all bad. It’s nonsense – and it’s time the politicians took a lead on it rather than worrying what the media or press will think all the time.

    Clegg was excellent today. I just wish we could see and hear more of him…

  • Have you watched the whole PMQs?

    When Clegg is delivering the line on the supposed illegality of the war – Gideon is gently mouthing the words along with him. He mouths it word for word, then sits back, looking rather pleased with himself.

    Watch it. It’s the oddest thing.

    Conclusion?

    GIdeon wrote Clegg’s words. GIdeon wrote them; Clegg delivered them; No. 10 retracted them. You’re being played.

  • The article is right. Nick Clegg did pretty well in his first PMQ’s and nothing he said can remotely be called a gaffe and I speak as someone who detests the man (despite his excellent taste in literature – Beckett and Coatzee according to the Guardian). He talks to the electorate like he is a children’s television presenter but nonetheless all this talk of gaffes is just silly media mischief-making.

    Although I also noticed how often he seemed to be taking direction from Osborne – very weird …

  • The coalition agreement does not set out who was the junior partner in the war against the Third Reich, what the speed of light in a vacuum is or whether or not the invasion of Iraq was legal.

    How then should any government minister who has to speak on these questions refer to them.

    Simply this:

    1 The UK was not the junior partner in the war in 1940
    2 The speed of light in a vacuum is 3 * 10**8 metres per second
    3 The invasion of Iraq was illegal

    All that is required is that ministers should tell the truth.

    The truth is not a personal opinion – it is the common property of humanity.

  • The Westminster Village excuse might have held some water when they were busy ignoring the Lib Dems, but not when Nick flunked arguably his best opportunity to shine and put the skils which won the debates to good use.

    And flunk it he did I’m afraid.
    If it wasn’t for Straw being equally useless Nick would have been utterly destroyed at PMQ’s.
    As it was Nick appeared evasive (which to be fair is sometimes unavoidable at PMQ’s) and, far more damaging, not in command of the facts.

    This is the ‘honeymoon’ period.
    This is when concessions (small though they may be) won must be used to maximum effect to bolster support and counter the damaging impression that the Lib Dems are unprincipled.
    Because when the cuts start to bite hard the scrutiny from the Media now will be rembmered with wistful nostalgia.

    Clegg will have to start thinking about a serious ‘relaunch’ strategy as those who continually ignore the polls and the media because they do not like what they are saying will have some serious explaining to do after the elections and referendum. Things are only going to get tougher from here on in. Hoping for better days and more favourable coverage is not a tenable strategy when in Government.

    Oh, and Osborne is known to be one of those who favours an annexe and destroy strategy for the coalition partners along with Coulson. So if Nick really is taking direction from him then he is being made a fool of.

  • Mike Falchikov 22nd Jul '10 - 11:04am

    Don’t see anything much wrong with Nick giving his personal view about the Iraq war from the dispatch box. Much
    worse was Cameron’s gaffe in the States about being “the junior partner in 1940”. He surely knows enough history
    to realise what a foolish comment that was. What is it about British PMs that they go all weak at the knees when
    confronted by the mighty power of the White House? There’s much to admire and like about America and the
    Americans, but we can surely do without a repeat of the Blair cringe.

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Jul '10 - 11:27am

    @tony

    Your attitude is exactly the one I was criticising earlier. Sticking your fingers in your ears and going “La La La Nothing Has Changed We Can All Continue Exactly As Usual La La La” is not a mature response to coalition government.

  • I’ve just done a brief scan of today’s major news stories:

    Clegg’s comments on the Iraq war may lead to legal action against the UK
    Cameron claims Britain was junior partner in 1940
    Academic study reveals divisive nature of education in Sweden due to ‘free schools’
    Forgemasters’ loan cancelled following pressure from Conservative Party donor (Don’t forget Clegg has already apologised for falsely claiming that the owners were unwilling to water down their shares)

    This government needs to get its act together. Follwoing on from Gove’s mess over BSF lists, it just looks incompetent at the moment.

    I, for one, do not want the Lib Dems to disappear, but Yougov’s latest 13% rating doesn’t make happy reading – and none of the cuts (or the VAT rise) have taken effect yet.

  • You reap what you sow

    If you paste a Coalition together in super-double-record quick time; treat policy + manifesto’s as vapour-ware; look to avoid political disagreement by abstention and all the time painting this as some vacuous “New Politics” – you’re going to have a fall.

    Clegg has made personal, tactical + strategic errors all through this horrible, soul destroying process. He has under-estimated the electorate and over-estimated his own ability. His biggest mistake has been the manner in which he has presented the relationship between him and Cameron; the Lib Dems and the Tories. It has been presented as a merger on all levels – ideology, policy + history.

    The defence that “you just don’t understand coalition” has no basis. Has it occurred to this blog that maybe you just don’t understand it – you’ve just accepted Clegg’s merger as the way it should be? The devolved parliament coalition parties have successfully managed to retain seperate political identities. German coalition governments retain seperate party identities. Clegg, Cable, Alexander and the rest have been increasingly bizarre + determined in their strategy to paint the Tories + Lib Dems as one entity. It has diluted the party’s credibility and leaves the leadership with nowhere to turn, now the economy, politics, policies and communications are being so badly managed.

    Make no mistake. We have seen the beginning of the end for this Coalition and unfortunately – you can include the Lib Dems as we know them within that end game.

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Jul '10 - 12:54pm

    Make no mistake. The coalition will end in 2015. The Liberal Democrats will not.

  • Is Nick Clegg’s use of the term “illegal” so surprising when you have a coalition between the party that supported the war and the party that were appeasers?

  • Tony wrote:

    “thousands of councel seats lost” (sic)

    Like Corfe Mullen South? Oh, I forgot. Labour trolls are uniquely able to predict the future.

    “MP’s desserting (sic) (by then)”

    Bread and buttter pudding or sherry trifle?

    “party that supported the war and the party that were (sic) appeasers”

    The latter is presumably the Labour Party, which appeased Dick Cheney and the US military-industrial complex, yes? I never thought I would see the day when self-professed socialists defend an imperialist war, but I guess I’ve been around a long time.

    Cuse wrote:

    “You reap what you sow”

    A half-remembered quote from Harold Wilson who, having said “they shall not reap where we have sown”, went on to lose. As Mr Miliband might well do too.

    “vapour-ware”

    You mean Tupperware, surely?

    Gosh, I bet Nick is poring over this homespun wisdom as if there’s no tomorrow!

  • @ cuse: If you paste a Coalition together in super-double-record quick time
    whose fault was that we didn’t take more time to negotiate the coalition? the media and Labour that’s who.

  • matthew fox 23rd Jul '10 - 7:36am

    Gaffe is putting it pretty lightly.

  • @Sesenco
    I never thought I would see the day when self-professed socialists defend an imperialist war, but I guess I’ve been around a long time.

    Saddam Hussein was a nascent Hitler. It took millions of deaths to remove Hitler from the World; not so many to remove Hussein. All of those deaths are deeply regrettable. That’s why it is the dury of all democratic politicians to ensure that such deranged monsters are never allowed the power and opportunity to be the play actors of their own ideals. The liberals weren’t always the party of appeasement. As you have ben around such a long time perhaps you may recall that Lloyd George had a healthy appetite for imperialist war and was even an admirer of Hitler.

  • MacK,

    If Saddam Hussein really was a nascent Hitler, why did your friends, the Americans, spend the 1980s arming him to the teeth? Or was it BECAUSE he was a nascent Hitler that they did this?

    Do you think DIck Cheney was a nascent Hitler? He did, after all, cause the deaths of millions. And the families who put him in power financed the German war machine (Ford Motor Company, Bush family, etc).

    Do you think the United States should have gone to war with Stalin and Chairman Mao? How about Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il? Is that what you think those noted humanitarians and good socialists, Johnson and Nixon, should have done? Oh, sorry. I forgot. North Korea and Zimbabwe don’t have any oil.

    I see you have departed from the stated reason for going to war with Iraq, namely the weapons of mass destruction which Saddam Hussein could launch on Britain in 45 minutes, and you are now admitting that regime change was the real reason. A welcome bit of candour.

    You have succeed in demonstrating that the “New Labour” brand of neo-conservatism, which you have half-assimilated, is a twisted ideology that seeks to disguise naked imperialism as humanitarianism. Nauseating.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 23rd Jul '10 - 1:05pm

    “I see you have departed from the stated reason for going to war with Iraq, namely the weapons of mass destruction which Saddam Hussein could launch on Britain in 45 minutes …”

    My own theory is that those weapons really did exist, and the CIA secretly disposed of them in order to provoke a backlash from the Muslim world that would provoke a backlash from the American Right.

    Either that or it was the blood-sucking lizards from outer space …

  • MacK,

    Should the Untied States have gone to war with Indonesia to overthrow General Suharto, who killed over a million of his own people (including half a million plus in East Timor)? Oh dear. I’m being really dense today. It was the Untied States that encouraged Suharto to do this!

  • @ Sesenco

    I imply from your comments that you find America’s support for Britain during the second world war nauseating too. But without it we would have perished. (It was your coalition partner’s leader who recently referred to the U.K. as the junior partner in that conflict) Thank heavens the party of appeasement wasn’t able to prevail then. Your other remarks only reinforce the impression that the Lib Dems are willing to support any interest (particularly in the Middle East) as long as that interest is neither American nor Jewish. As for the weapons of Mass Destruction justification, I never regarded that as essential, and always thought that Hussein’s conduct justified his removal. I also supported Blair’s intervention in Kossovo and in Sierra Leone. And would support intervention again if the behaviour of a despot demanded it. Little hope of that now that you and your coalition partners are running away from Afghanistan. Non intervention from now on will be justified by the old appeaser’s excuse “Not in Britain’s interests.”

  • Rob Sheffield 23rd Jul '10 - 8:07pm

    That naughty old media still not being able to handle the coalition- her eis BBC today:

    “Tim Farron told the BBC the Tory leader gave the Lib Dems such a “good deal” partly to help his own party’s image.

    Meanwhile, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes said his party would not have backed the government’s academies bill if they had not been in the coalition.

    The comments come amid growing unease within the party about decisions taken.

    Liberal Democrat activists and some MPs are concerned about the party leadership’s backing for a VAT rise, which they opposed at the general election, and cuts to school buildings programmes.

    Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has insisted he will continue to stand up for liberal principles in government and that there is much common ground with his Conservative coalition partners.

    Mr Farron has been sceptical about the coalition since its formation, describing it as a “poor ideological fit””

  • No wonder there are tensions within the coalition. It astonishes me that a party such as the Lib Dems who ostensibly appear to be so anti-American and anti-Israeli could have formed a pact with a party which is so demonstrably pro-American and pro- Israeli. Or are the anti-American comments on this site unrepresentative? I do hope so.
    However, those who think that their coalition still has legs should perhaps have a look at the report in the Guardian of David Davies’ alleged remarks at a private meeting.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/jul/24/david-davis-brokeback-coalition-pub-talk

  • MacK wrote:

    “I imply from your comments that you find America’s support for Britain during the second world war nauseating too.”

    Apply logic to your reasoning and you will avoid such silly mistakes.

    “But without it we would have perished”

    Now, that is an interesting comment coming from a self-professed socialist. Many of your brethren, as I am sure you are aware, take the view that the Soviet Union, not the United States, won the Second World War almost single-handedly. “Our freedom and our children’s freedom was paid for in Russian blood” – T Benn. Certainly, the Soviet Union suffered more than any other nation, and the United States emerged with barely a scratch. The impact both had was enormous, but in neither case was the motive altruistic. The United States wanted control of Europe through the agency of the United Kingdom, while the Soviet Union was double-crossed and attacked.

    “(It was your coalition partner’s leader who recently referred to the U.K. as the junior partner in that conflict)”

    Yes, Cameron is dancing to the tune of the people who wind the key in his back. The neocon line is that Europeans are a bunch of ungovernable savages who need the benevolent Americans to stop them killing their own people. To a neocon, America = righteousness, the rest of the world = the forces of darkness. What people like Cameron and Blair don’t tell us is that US banks and big business were helping Hitler build his war machine right up until Pearl Harbour.

    “Your other remarks only reinforce the impression that the Lib Dems are willing to support any interest (particularly in the Middle East) as long as that interest is neither American nor Jewish.”

    The last refuge of the neocon scoundrel: smear one’s critics as anti-Semitic. Where, pray tell me, have I used the word, “Jew”?

    “As for the weapons of Mass Destruction justification, I never regarded that as essential, and always thought that Hussein’s conduct justified his removal.”

    Tony Blair did. Regime change is explicitly prohibited by the United Nations Charter. The only possible legal basis for the war would have been a breach of the UN resolution that required Iraq to dispose of its WMD. What you are in fact advocating is the international law of the jungle where the most powerful nation dictates to the rest of the world.

    You see, it won’t be YOU who decides whose behaviour justifies regime change, it will be the United States. Now, did the United States consider that General Suharto’s genocide of Communists and Timorese justified regime change in Indonesia? Evidently not, because it was the United States that brought General Suharto to power and kept him there (and invited him to invade East Timor).

    “I also supported Blair’s intervention in Kossovo and in Sierra Leone.”

    Dear, dear. You’re a proper little war-monger. The Jugoslav conflict arose from a colossal failure of diplomacy on the part of the European powers. The US stepped into the vacuum on the side of Croatia and the KLA, not because they gave a stuff about the numerous atrocities and human rights violations committed by all sides, but because they wanted to buy up the few profitable bits of the Serbian economy, and Milosevic wouldn’t let them.

    “Little hope of that now that you and your coalition partners are running away from Afghanistan.”

    I take it you are volunteering to go and fight there? Yes?

    Actually, the US presence in Afghanistan has nothing to do with human rights or terrorism, it is about the transfer of oil and gas from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. Oh, and remind me who installed the Taliban in the first place?

    “Non intervention from now on will be justified by the old appeaser’s excuse “Not in Britain’s interests.””

    Where would you like to have a war next? Iran? North Korea? Which place takes your fancy?

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