Cameron is preparing for defeat over Leveson

The PM's repeated references to "a hung parliament" suggest that he expects Labour and the Lib Dems to combine forces and defeat him in Monday's vote.

After months of trying and failing to reach agreement on a new system of press regulation, David Cameron has decided to call Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg's bluff. A Commons vote will now be held on Monday night on his proposed Royal Charter model, with government amendments submitted to the crime and courts bill in order to "bring this to a head". 

At his press conference at Downing Street, Cameron dared Labour and the Lib Dems to support him or being their forward own rival amendments. "They can back my amendments and support this Royal Charter to secure a workable new system," he said, "or they can grandstand and end up with a system that I believe won’t work". Cameron later confirmed that Tory MPs would be whipped "in the normal way" and that, were statutory regulation introduced, a majority Conservative government would repeal it.  

The key question now is whether Labour and the Lib Dems will combine forces to defeat Cameron on Monday. With 315 MPs between them, to the Tories' 304 (excluding Speakers), they have the numbers to do so. There are a small number of anti-Leveson Labour MPs (such as David Blunkett, Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart) but they are outweighed by the larger group of pro-Leveson Tories. A total of 68 Conservative MPs have publicly expressed their support for state-backed regulation, although some have since backed Cameron's stance. 

Labour and the Lib Dems have refused to say how they will vote on Monday, with both expressing their surprise at Cameron's decision to break off the cross-party talks. One Labour source told me that the talks had been "making progress" and that the party still "hoped to reach agreement". 

A Lib Dem spokesman said: "the prime minister has unilaterally decided to pull the plug on cross-party talks. We are still prepared to work with politicians of all parties, including the Conservatives, who want to work with others to implement Leveson." 

That last line is significant. It suggests that the Lib Dems are prepared to combine forces with Labour and any Tory rebels in order to vote for state-backed regulation. Since Leveson lies outside of the coalition agreement, collective responsibility will not apply in the usual fashion, allowing the Lib Dems to oppose the Tories. 

During his press conference, Cameron pointedly (and unusually) referred to the fact that parliament is hung. "Look, we have a hung parliament," he said. "In the end, parliament is going to have to decide. Parliament is sovereign." Those are not the words of a man confident of victory. With no Commons majority for his position, the PM is preparing for defeat.

Update: Ed Miliband has just responded to Cameron's announcement, stating that he and Nick Clegg  may "have to go above David Cameron’s head and work with other Conservative MPs".

Miliband repeatedly name-checked Clegg, suggesting that he is confident of a Labour-Lib Dem alliance on Monday. 

Protestors wear papier mache heads in the likeness of Rupert Murdoch and Prime Minister David Cameron outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.