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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.