David Cameron caves in over Leveson

The Tories accept Labour and Lib Dem demands for statutory underpinning of a Royal Charter to establish a new press regulator.

After talks that lasted until 2:30am in Ed Miliband's offiice, the three main parties are close to reaching an agreement on press regulation - and it is the Conservatives who have given way. A Labour source told The Staggers: "we are confident we have the basis of an agreement around our Royal Charter entrenched in statute". The Tories, represented by Oliver Letwin at the talks (Miliband, Clegg and Harriet Harman were also present), have accepted three of Labour and the Lib Dems' key demands: 

-That the Royal Charter will be underpinned by law, so that it can only be amended by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, rather than by ministers at will. 

-That the press will not be able to veto appointments to the board of the new industry regulator.

-That the independent regulator will have the power to "direct" how newspaper apologies are made, rather than merely "requiring" them to be made. Papers, for instance, will be ordered to publish front page corrections, rather than bury them elsewhere.  

Despite these concessions, the Tories are claiming success on the basis that they have avoided the wider version of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Miliband and Clegg. Earlier this year, Harman said of the Tories' proposal of a Royal Charter: "It's a bit like Dolly the sheep, it might look like a sheep, but we do not know if it will do all the thing that a sheep is supposed to do". But Labour and the Lib Dems have now accepted that a Royal Charter, rather than a formal press law, is the appropriate mechanism to establish the new regulator.

A Tory source told the Daily Mail: "We have not caved. It is a near as dammit our version of Royal Charter. The entrenchment clause has been rewritten". But "near as dammit" means Miliband and Clegg can still chalk this up as a major political victory. We'll get the full details when a statement is made in the House of Commons later today. 

Update: Speaking on Sky News, Harriet Harman has just confirmed that "agreement has been reached" and that there will no longer be a Commons vote held today. She later told the Today programme that there will be "a small piece of legislation" in the House of Lords "which will say you can't tamper with or water down this charter". However, she conceded that this was not the form of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Labour and the Lib Dems: "The framework is set up in a Royal Charter, not by statute". That will aid the Tories' attempts to argue that it is ultimately the pro-Leveson camp that has given most ground. 

Harman also said that the new regulator would have the power to order newspapers to publish front page corrections and that Hacked Off would be "very pleased by the outcome". The key question, however, isn't whether the Tories or Labour think they've "won" but what the press makes of it all. The credibility of the new regulator will depend on the participation of all papers. 

David Cameron during a press conference last week on press regulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.