Ignore the headlines, Leveson will still pass…if Nick Clegg wants it to

by Atul Hatwal

It’s quite simple really. The decision on whether Leveson is implemented is not exclusively in the gift of the prime minister. He does not, to quote today’s Telegraph headline, have a veto because the Tories do not command a majority in the House of Commons. Ed Miliband has committed to bringing forward a vote on the judge’s recommendations so it will be down to the 650 members of parliament to determine the future of press regulation.

Here’s how the arithmetic stacks up: the coalition normally has a working majority of 82. This is the number by which the 360 coalition MPs (303 Tory and 57 Liberal Democrat) exceed the combined strength of all the other parties – 278 MPs – less the speaker and his three deputies who don’t vote and the five Sinn Fein MPs who similarly don’t vote.

If the Lib Dems were whipped to support a vote on implementing Leveson (albeit an amended version to address Clegg’s misgivings on Ofcom’s role in verifying the new watchdog and on data protection), the working majority over the Tories would be 35 (303 Tories versus a new combined total of 335 of the rest).

There is the potential that one of the Lib Dems, John Hemming, will defy the whip, given he signed the anti-Leveson letter organised by Conor Burns and David Blunkett. Similarly there are a handful of anti-Leveson Labour MPs who may defy the whip, including Blunkett, Gisela Stuart, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Gerald Kaufman and Eric Joyce (yes, I know Eric Joyce is nominally an independent).

Taking these dissenters and adding them to the Tory total gives a reduced pro-Leveson majority in the Commons of 18 (a combined total of 328 MPs versus 310 Tories and anti-Leveson defectors.)

As whips office veterans of the knife edge votes in the 1990s and late 1970s can attest, this is where it gets complicated. The remaining 23 votes are made up of a hotch potch of minor groups and parties.

The largest, and historically most biddable group, is the Ulster unionists. With eight Democratic Unionist MPs and one former Ulster Unionist, now independent, Lady Hermon, it is entirely possible and likely that the promise of some financial baubles for their pet projects in the province will buy their votes for the anti-Leveson camp.

If each of this group of nine rowed in behind the Tories, the vote would be a tie at 319 votes a piece on either side.

The next largest group is the Scottish Nationalists with six MPs. Despite the general political positioning of the Nats to the left of the Tories, Alex Salmond has form on media regulation.

He has famously nurtured his relationship with Rupert Murdoch, lobbying on behalf of the BSkyB bid and his party will be nervous about antagonising the press in the run up to an independence vote.

A couple of days ago, Salmond seemed to back the Irish model of regulation, which includes a statutory element, but wasn’t explicit about how he would vote if there was a Leveson motion in the chamber.

It is by no means clear that all of the Nats would vote with the Tories, but assuming they did, the anti-Leveson camp would have a majority of 12 – 325 to 313 MPs.

This probably represents the highest possible vote for an anti-Leveson coalition of the unwilling. The remaining nine MPs (three Plaid, three SDLP, one Alliance, one Green and one Respect) would all almost certainly vote in favour of backing the Leveson report.

So, in this worst case scenario, the task for the pro-Leveson lobby is clear: they need to switch seven votes to reach their threshold of 320 supporters for a majority in the House of Commons.

There are a number of routes to achieve this. Most directly, the Labour and Lib Dem whips could work to ensure their seven malcontents fell in behind their leaders. On its own, this would be enough.

Then there are the Ulster MPs, there is potentially a moral case to be made for appropriate regulation which could be effective. Even if the argument was not wholly won, it might persuade some of the Ulster contingent to abstain.

Propping up David Cameron would surely stick in the throats of many Scottish nationalists and a number of the six might be open to abstention or even supporting the recommendations.

The votes to win are potentially there from among the minor parties and within Labour and Lib Dem ranks. But it would be exceptionally close. It is only when the likelihood of Tory switchers is factored in that the potential of the pro-Leveson position is evident.

42 Conservative MPs signed the letter endorsing a model of regulation very similar to the one proposed in the report. The Westminster consensus seems to be there are many more that are supportive, with totals of around 70 frequently being discussed.

This does not mean 70 would defy the whip, far from it, but it is indicative of the environment in which Tory MPs will discuss their choices: one where a substantial number actively support Leveson.

In this context, it is quite possible that a number of Tory MPs, potentially motivated by an animus against Cameron or past press practice or both, would defy the whip. The numbers wouldn’t be enormous, but then, they wouldn’t have to be: high single figures would suffice.This has, after all, been the most undisciplined Tory intake in history with more rebellions of higher numbers than ever before.

One way or another, it seems likely the pro-Leveson lobby would be able to flip the small number of votes that it needed. For supporters of reform, after the initial blow of Cameron’s statement, there are solid grounds for some optimism. But these are all based on one critical assumption:  the position of the Lib Dems.

With their support, Leveson is likely to pass. Without it, Leveson will certainly fail.

Over to you Nick.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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3 Responses to “Ignore the headlines, Leveson will still pass…if Nick Clegg wants it to”

  1. swatantra says:

    I find it incredible that ‘the votes of Ulster Unionists can be bought’ by giviing them tiny titbits for their local communities. MPs should be above that sort of thing. They are there for the national interest, and not for petty local gain. So Lady Sylvia Hermon should stick to for her principles, and not think what it is in it for her. Anyway, NI has its own Leveson-style Press Laws which work perfectly well in NI. So why are the NI MPs interfering in English Legislation? If they had any sense they should judiciously stay away.
    Its about time Scots NI and Welsh MPs stopped interfering in purely English Legislation that doesn’t affect their constituencies one bit. Its about time we had a Federal Constitution for the UK.
    Theres a lot of pressure on Clegg, but he’ll resist bringing down the Coalition.

  2. Toby says:

    Interesting read, but what do you mean by “Leveson will pass”? A motion endorsing Leveson’s recommendations *might* pass (I think you’ve under-estimated just how biddable Nick Clegg is and the no. of Labour MPs who’d vote against), but the Prime Minister would be under no obligation to pass a Leveson Act as a result. Politically, it would make it harder for him not to legislate, but not impossible, particularly if there’s a more robust Hunt/Black proposal on the table at that point. Even if you discount Cameron’s principles and the opposition of his own Cabinet, a simple cost benefit analysis would make him stick to his guns. After all, the political cost of defying Parliament on Leveson would be lower than the political cost of alienating the whole of Fleet Street (with the possible exception of the Guardian which is facing both ways on statutory regulation). It would also be unhelpful for Cameron to create such clear blue water between him and Boris, thereby giving his greatest rival an internal campaign platform – or, rather, yet another.

    For that reason, I’m not convinced Ed Miliband will go all in on Leveson. If he was certain of forcing Cameron’s hand, the risk would be minimal. But given that he cannot be certain – indeed, he’d probably fail – the risk is that the Tories will be able to paint Labour as the party that wants to “gag the press” during the next general election campaign. Given that Miliband’s authoritarian instincts will already be a weakness in that campaign, I’m not sure he’ll want to risk making it easier for the Tories to make that charge stick. There’s also the fact that he will alienate the whole of Fleet Street if he does go all in. A smaller cost for him than for Cameron, obviously, but not negligible.

    So, on balance, I think it’s the long grass for Leveson.

  3. Atul Hatwal says:

    Swatantra – couldn’t agree more about the Ulster unionists, their’s is a history of pork barrel politics

    Toby – Take the point on the definition of ‘pass’. Implicit in my thinking was that Cam will find it hard not to bring something forward on this if he loses a vote on a motion. Granted, he has ignored Commons votes before – as on Europe – but the context here is different: all the variables are under his control, it was his Inquiry and its a biggish (though imho not vote defining) issue. Evidence from the criminal trials will revive the issue and potentially increase its salience. Still think its a big thing for the PM to ignore the will of parliament completely, esp given the prolonged lead up.

    For Ed M, think he’s got to double down and push to get this through. At the moment he will be coated by the press as an enemy of freedom. He needs to get to a point where he can claim a win and then draw a line under any further regulation. The win would be any form of statutory underpinning and the line would be a commitment not to legislate further if Lab get in, with the hope that this neutralises some of the vehemence of press opposition in the run up to the next elex.

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