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

by Stephen Tall on July 21, 2010

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.