Those involved in the Leveson talks from the Labour and Lib Dem side say they had no idea the Prime Minister was going to pull the plug on the cross-party discussions this morning until a conference call shortly before David Cameron’s hastily-arranged press conference.
An angry Lib Dem source tells me:
‘It was completely out of the blue to be honest. Over the last few days the talks have been making gal progress and we were moving towards a deal. We thought a solution was possible. There were other things we war pushing for, such as some form of statutory underpinning to protect the Royal Charter from future political interference. The Conservatives also wanted to give the press the power over who sits on the independent regulator and we felt that was unacceptable: it would be like letting a football team pick their referee and then tell the referee what constitutes a foul.’
Labour was still briefing last night that the talks were going well, with just a few more issues that needed to be agreed on. But today the Prime Minister said:
‘In recent weeks, those who want or would prefer a full legislative approach to Leveson have hijacked important parliamentary bills on other issues. The Defamation Bill which has important reforms to Libel Law, the Bill to introduce the Green Investment Bank, currently in the House of Lords. I cannot allow this to continue.
‘So if other parties do not want to adopt the approach that I am recommending, they will have that option when the Crime and Courts Bill is debated on Monday night and if they wish they can table their own amendments to put in place a full regulatory system, a full legislative system, or indeed anything else. To put it simply, they can back my amendments and support this Royal Charter to secure a workable new system that delivers the principles of Leveson’s recommendations, or they can grandstand and end up with a system that I believe won’t work.’
A source close to the Prime Minister says that matters needed to be brought to a head as there would have been more threats to hold other pieces of legislation to ransom, and more demands from the other sides for changes which would have made the new system unworkable. The last thing the Tories want is to present a system that is rejected by the press and therefore is not a solution at all. The source tells me:
‘We couldn’t keep going on and on with each bill being held to ransom. If it wasn’t the Crime and Courts Bill, it would have been the next bill and the bill after that, and they kept adding things, so things had to be brought to a head.’
So now there’s a vote on Monday, which the PM told his press conference will be whipped in the usual way for his own party. But this will be another instance in which collective responsibility won’t apply. A Lib Dem source says:
‘Clearly the idea of collective responsibility goes out of the window when the Prime Minister unilaterally arranges a press conference to tell people that he’s tabling an amendment as Conservative leader.’
The Tories in Downing Street accept that this is the case, too, so the chances are that the two parties could walk through different lobbies on Monday night. It will be interesting to see how many Conservative MPs join Labour and the Lib Dems on votes. George Eustice, who leads the pro-statute group, has previously urged colleagues to back the Royal Charter, but will the detail of the amendment satisfy all those MPs concerned about press regulation?Tags: David Cameron, Leveson, Press regulation, Royal Charter, UK politics