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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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