Cameron faces "Leveson by the backdoor" after Lords defeat

Surprise defeat over press regulation will force the Tories to overturn Lords amendments in the Commons. But will Labour and the Lib Dems let them?

While everyone's attention was on the equal marriage debate, the Conservatives suffered a significant defeat in the House of Lords over press regulation. Taking ministers by surprise, peers voted by 272 to 141 to introduce a low-cost arbitration system for victims of press defamation, one of the key recommendations of the Leveson report. 

Since those papers that do not join up to the system could be punished by courts awarding greater damages and costs, the proposal represents a form of the state-backed regulation that David Cameron has unambiguously rejected. The rebellion notably included senior Tory peers such as Lord Ashcroft (yes, the billionaire party donor and media mogul), Lord Fowler, Lord Hurd and Lord Astor, Cameron's father-in-law. The economist Robert Skidelsky, a crossbench peer and NS contributor, noted that some peers had described the amendments as "Leveson by the backdoor" and added: "To my mind, that is an important merit of the bill because we are unlikely to get Leveson through the front door". Lord Fowler described the move as a "building block in implementing Leveson - a kind of stalking horse".

If the Conservatives want to avoid "Leveson by the backdoor", they will now need to overturn the amendments in the Commons. With Labour and the Liberal Democats both in favour of state-backed regulation, this could prove a challenge for the government.

For now, the long-stalled cross-party talks on Leveson continue, with the parties next due to meet on Monday. During the debate, Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, promised that the government's proposal of a royal charter to oversee press regulation would finally be published next week. As IPPR's Tim Finch noted on The Staggers on Monday, Labour has not ruled out supporting this compromise. In her speech at the think-tank's recent Oxford Media Convention, Harriet Harman, the shadow media secretary, said she was "unpersuaded" by the idea but actions speak louder than words; Labour failed to follow through on its threat to force a Commons vote on its own draft bill in January if the government failed to bring forward satisfactory proposals by Christmas. Moreover, as Tim wrote, "being unpersuaded is not quite the same as being unpersuadable".

The government is confident that the Lib Dems, and possibly Labour, will unite around the proposal of a royal charter. But last night's Lords defeat means Clegg and Miliband now have a powerful bargaining chip.

A protest group stages a mock burning of the Leveson report outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.