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.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times