Cameron risks Commons defeat by forcing issue on press reform

PM runs out of patience over 'unbridgeable gap' on press regs. Has he made an historic mistake?

British opposition Conservative party Leader David Cameron returns to his home, after leaving to buy newspapers, in west London on May 09, 2010.Cameron stands on the brink of finally becoming
(Image credit: 2010 AFP)

LABOUR leader Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of making "an historic mistake" after the Prime Minister unilaterally ended the cross-party talks on the Leveson report on press controls and announced he is going to force a vote on Monday on the Tories' plan for a voluntary system based on a royal charter.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats had been arguing for a statutory code of conduct, as demanded by the Hacked Off campaign led by actor Hugh Grant. By voting together, Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg could now inflict a damaging defeat on Cameron in Monday's vote.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Commons media select committee, said on Radio 4's World at One that "there is a very good chance he will be defeated' on the measure. But Whittingdale - a member of the Tory backbench 1922 committee - said Cameron was right to resist the demands for statutory controls.

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Cameron's decision to announce that the cross-party talks had broken down came as a complete surprise to both sides in Westminster. They had talks on Wednesday night and were said to have made progress. However, Cameron had been told that Labour would be carrying out guerrilla tactics next week to slow down government business and appears to have decided to bring it to a head.

Jo Murphy, political editor of the Evening Standard, tweeted: "No 10 sources say it was 'clear' Clegg/Miliband plotting #Leveson ambush on Tues in Courts Bill to 'push Cam into corner'."

It is unclear what will happen to press regulation if the Tories lose the vote, but it marks a further step in the growing alliance between Ed Miliband and Clegg. James Chapman, political editor of the Daily Mail, tweeted that Ed Miliband had said: "We are determined to keep working, myself and Nick Clegg." Chapman wondered whether it was "a post-2015 portent".

Cameron spoke to the other two party leaders this morning in a conference call and told them that the gap between them was "unbridgeable", that they were trying to push him beyond a position with which he was comfortable and beyond something the press would support.

Cameron is planning to attach an outline of his proposals as an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill when MPs vote on Monday night, claiming the alternative would be further difficult negotiations and the risk that several pieces of legislation could be blocked from being passed by continuing amendments and debate.

Labour and the Lib Dems could table their own amendment to bring about statutory backing for the new press watchdog that will be set up regardless of Monday's vote.

The sticking point is statutory backing for the new press regulator. Cameron has set himself against it, even though it was proposed in the report by Lord Justice Leveson after his lengthy inquiry and Cameron gave a pledge to implement the Leveson proposals providing they were not "bonkers".

Under Cameron's proposals, the new regulator could levy fines of up to £1m against newspapers and force them to issue "proper" apologies, all backed up by a royal charter rather than legislation. Newspapers that refused to join the new body would face potentially much more expensive "exemplary damages". However, it is unlikely they would be forced to put apologies on the front page, as demanded by Hugh Grant.

The politics are complex. Cameron was embarrassed during the Leveson inquiry by his exchange of toe-curling text messages with Rupert Murdoch's former UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks (with whom he went horse riding).

By risking a defeat for the principle of press freedom, he is counting on the Tories retaining the support of the Murdoch press - particularly The Sun - who are dead set against statutory controls on the press.

But the public appear to be strongly in favour of statutory controls in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Cameron could be calculating on the likelihood that few voters switch parties because they are angry about the lack of press regulation, but far more can be influenced if you can keep the tabloids on your side.

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