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.