Alex Massie

New Politics, Same Old Media

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When Jeremy Paxman grilled Danny Alexander on Newsnight yesterday he spent most of his time on politics, not economics. Fair enough. That's what the media does and one wouldn't expect it any other way. But it was the type of attack Paxman employed that was both mildly interesting and futile.

This was because Paxman decided to tear into Alexander and attack him for all the things in the budget that weren't in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Some of them, as Paxo pointed out time and time again, were actively opposed by the Lib Dems. Gotcha! Hypocrites! Why, he sneered, should anyone ever listen to anything you have to say in the future, far less take it seriously?

In as far as it went it was effective. Unfortunately it didn't go very far. But I wonder if this kind of thing interests the public. I suspect  - though this is based on a hunch rather than anything else - the public is ahead of the broadcasters and much of the rest of the press. The punters, you see, have twigged that this is not actually a Liberal Democrat ministry and so, actually, they're not surprised that lots of Lib Dem policies (most of which made little impression on the public anyway) have been ditched, postponed or watered down. Instead, I suspect they find this kind of thing - in which Paxo invites Lib Dems to confess their hypocrisy - wearisome.

I may well be mistaken but I suspect many voters have already priced this in to their appraisal of the new government and, frankly, don't mind it very much at all. In the first place it confirms certain base prejudices; more importantly it's what they expect from a coalition government. So far the public seems better placed than the media when it comes to appreciating and accepting the compromises that are an integral part of any such arrangement.

Which also means - if I'm right -  they may not mind that most, though certainly not all, of the meat in Osborne's budget was Tory meat. Unlike sections of the press they may not think the Lib Dems' job is to thwart everything the Tories might have done had they won a thumping majority. (Some of it, yes, and to trim it and take some of the rough edges off but most of all, I think, to give the appearance of comity and partnership and delay for a while the moment when people feel they better start hating this government too.)

So, sure, this does mean that the Lib Dems are, in some respects, the government's human shields. But this too is pretty much an inescapable feature of coalition government. It also means that there will come times when Cameron must give ground to Clegg and be seen to help him out too. (Perhaps some rather senior Tories will surprise us with their enthusiasm for the Alternative Vote?)

Perhaps it's asking too much to expect the press to appreciate that the mere existence of a coalition means that, pace Keynes, the facts have changed and so, accordingly, should some of the rules of engagement. When the next election rolls around the government will be judged on its record, not the distance between that record and the aspirations contained in the parties respective manifestos. This too, in my view, strengthens the argument for a joint-ticket in 2015 but this, clearly, is so far distant that it's only marginally useful to contemplate such a thing right now.

Still, that's where we could be headed, even if some parts of the press don't seem yet to have twigged that a coalition means you can't get everything you want. But that's also something that the country seems happy with. For the time being anyway. It suits the national mood.

NOTE: Just to clarify matters: of course splits and tensions within the coalition are a "story", they're just not the only story or always the most interesting one.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.