March 17, 2013 12:33 pm

Tories eye cross-party deal on Leveson

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british newpapers on a newstand. Leveson©Getty

David Cameron was seeking a face-saving deal over press regulation amid signs that he faces defeat when MPs vote on Monday on implementing the Leveson report.

The prime minister spent Sunday trying to revive cross-party talks over Leveson, just three days after he unilaterally broke them off. The prospect of a near-certain Commons defeat appears to have prompted his change of heart.

However, Ed Miliband, Labour leader, and Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, were in close contact throughout the day, apparently determined jointly to force Mr Cameron to accept robust press regulation underpinned by law.

The first sign of a softening of Mr Cameron’s position came when George Osborne, chancellor, said “a huge amount of progress” had been made towards a cross-party deal.

“It would be great if we can get some kind of agreement at this late stage between the parties,” Mr Osborne told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

Conservative officials refused to say whether Mr Cameron was sticking to his insistence that his proposed Royal Charter, now accepted by Labour and Liberal Democrats, should not have any legal underpinning.

The prime minister has argued that even a small piece of law to enshrine the charter could be a legal slippery slope and allow future governments to tighten regulation.

But Mr Osborne said on Sunday that Mr Cameron was looking for “a press law that works” – a suggestion that the prime minister might be prepared to accept a minimum level of law to implement the Leveson report.

However, if Mr Cameron does accept a legal underpinning for the Royal Charter, he is likely to demand concessions from Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg in exchange.

The prime minister has been heavily lobbied by the rightwing press to give the newspaper industry a veto over appointments to the new press regulator and dilute the powers of the regulator to “direct” front page apologies.

Senior Labour officials said Mr Miliband would insist on a regulator “with teeth” and was working “in lockstep” with Mr Clegg in co-ordinating tactics.

“David Cameron has seen the numbers and he’s going to lose,” said one. “Why should we back down?”

Both Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg were shocked when Mr Cameron pulled out of cross-party talks last week: they felt that a deal was close and the points of difference were narrowing.

Mr Cameron appeared willing to accept the possibility of a Commons defeat on the basis that his opposition to any press law would at least be hailed by the often critical rightwing press.

But at the weekend it became clear that a significant number of Tory MPs, many of them still bruised over the press reporting of the expenses scandal and other personal indiscretions, would join with Labour and Lib Dems to fight for a tough system of regulation.




Royal Charter
All sides now agree that a Royal Charter, like the one that established the BBC, is the best way to create an independent press regulator, but agreement ends there. Labour and the Liberal Democrats want it underpinned in an act of parliament; David Cameron says that would be to “cross the Rubicon” and create a press law that could be tightened by later governments. But the prime minister faces a Commons defeat on the issue and is looking for a way out.

Press vetoes
Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail is among those arguing that the newspaper industry should have a veto over appointments to the new press regulator, fearing that a campaigner such as Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off could seek to join it. Mr Cameron agrees; Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg insist that there can be no veto and they will not budge on the issue.

Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg insisting that the regulator must have teeth. That means it must have the power to “direct” apologies and corrections, including insisting that they appear on the front page. Mr Cameron backs heavy fines for serious wrongdoing but does not want to give the regulator the power to tell newspapers how and where to print apologies.

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