Leveson: who will blink first, Labour or the Tories?

With some reservations, Labour is inching towards accepting the Tories' proposal of a Royal Charter to underpin a new press regulator.

In the two and a half months since the Leveson report was published, it has often appeared in danger of becoming what its chair described as "a footnote in some professor of journalism’s analysis of the history of the 21st century". But today the Conservatives will finally publish their plans to introduce a new system of press regulation. Having rejected Leveson's recommendation that any new body be underpinned by statute, the Tories have alighted on Oliver Letwin's proposal of a Royal Charter, the mechanism used to establish the BBC and the Bank of England, to formally recognise the new watchdog. 

Press campaigners have already rejected the plan as unacceptable. Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and associate director of Hacked Off, described it as "one of the weakest forms of self-regulation anywhere to oversee one of the presses capable of the worst excesses. This is weaker than the [existing] Press Complaints Commission." But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have refused to rule out supporting this option. While both continue to favour state-backed regulation, they are aware of the need for progress after months of cross-party talks. Labour's decision not 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 was viewed by the Tories as evidence of its willingness to compromise. 

One reason why Labour is more favourable to a Royal Charter than might be thought is that, in practice, it may be largely indistinguishable from state-backed regulation. As Conservative peer Norman Fowler has pointed out, "The final irony of the Letwin plan is that – in spite of all the fine words about how unacceptable it is to have statutory intervention – it looks as though the royal charter will require legislation to enable it to work. How else can the new system of damages and costs be introduced?" Indeed, one of the concerns expressed by Harman is that a Royal Charter (which would require renewal by the government every ten years), would place the ultimate responsibility for press regulation in the hands of ministers, rather than parliament. For now, the desire on all sides to avoid further delay, means a messy compromise is the most likely outcome. 

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.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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