Nick picks Ed over Dave. Leveson is coming.

by Atul Hatwal

The Leveson saga reached a turning point in the House of Commons at lunchtime today. As ever with that place, it was wrapped in the arcane minutiae of parliamentary procedure, but make no mistake it was pivotal.

Following the Conservative’s refusal to countenance enacting Leveson, pro-reform forces have looked to make amendments to existing bills to legislate for the majority of Lord Leveson’s recommendations. Principally, these amendments have been tabled for the Crime and Courts bill and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill.

The Conservatives have been privately panicked at the prospect of these amendments coming to a final vote in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Their whips have been warning the leadership for weeks that it is unlikely the Tories will be able muster the votes to defeat the amendments, and so prevent Leveson becoming law.

Late last night came a final throw of the dice. The Conservative whips tried to re-schedule Commons debate on the Crime and Courts bill amendments. Specifically, they tabled a welter of new amendments to the bill – 29 pages of them – and tried to specify that any debate of the Leveson changes would happen after consideration of the government’s new additions.

With a fixed limit of two days debate on the amendments, all of the Leveson provisions would have been lost.

This procedural attempt to remove the Leveson amendments was contained in something called a programme motion: a motion which sets the timetable for parliamentary debate and is itself discussed, and voted upon, on the floor of the House of Commons.

In response, Labour tabled an amendment to the programme motion that would have guaranteed time for debate of the Leveson amendments.

For the Conservative plan to work, they needed the co-operation of their Liberal Democrat partners to defeat Labour’s amendment to the programme motion.

It offered the Lib Dems a potential route to help out David Cameron without being seen to publicly renege on their commitment to support Leveson.

Until this lunchtime, no-one on either side of the debate knew conclusively how hard the Lib Dems would push their coalition partners on Leveson. When Lib Dem home office minister, Jeremy Browne, got up to speak at the despatch box, on the programme motion for the Crime and Courts bill, he implicitly answered the questions on the Lib Dem’s commitment to Leveson.

Browne announced that the government would guarantee time for discussion and a vote upon the Leveson amendments on the second of the two days of debate, following the conclusion of talks between the party leaders.

This tells us two essential points.

First, over night, the Lib Dems made it clear to  the Conservatives that unless the government position changed, they would back Labour’s changes to the programme motion. Rather than face the damaging headlines of coalition splits, the Conservatives caved in.

With the Lib Dems clearly prepared to force the Tories to bring Leveson amendments to the floor of the house to be debated, it means the Tories will not be allowed to simply junk bills that have had Leveson amendments tabled before they can be voted upon.

Second, the Lib Dems will hold true to their public statements and vote in favour of the Leveson amendments to upcoming bills. Otherwise they would have taken the  easy option to allow the Leveson amendments to be delayed and discarded. Now, these amendments will come to a vote and Lib Dems will have to very publicly support or oppose them.

Given Nick Clegg’s previous strongly supportive statements on Leveson, they would not have allowed this to happen unless they were going to vote in favour. Another public u-turn, on an issue many Lib Dems care passionately about, could have been terminal for the deputy prime minister’s strained relationship with his party.

Number 10 have been involved at each stage of the unfolding drama and have been briefed by the chief whip on the position. With the Lib Dems lined up behind the Leveson amendments, and the various nationalist parties – including the Democratic Unionists – similarly united in support, the pro-Leveson lobby has a majority of over of over 40 in the House of Commons over the Tories.

Even taking into account Labour’s six or so potential rebels and Lib Dem refusenik  John Hemming, there should still be a majority of around 30 for the Leveson amendments – and that’s without any Conservative rebels.

In the Lords, where the Enterprise Regulatory Reform bill is, the majority in favour of Leveson is even higher.

This is the blunt truth with which David Cameron has been confronted. He cannot stop the Leveson amendments being debated and he does not have the votes to defeat them.

Last November, following David Cameron’s rejection of Leveson, I wrote a post saying “Ignore the headlines, Leveson will still pass…if Nick Clegg wants it to.” By siding with Ed Miliband on the detail of today’s programme motion, Nick Clegg has said, in the clearest possible terms, “I do.”

The denouement is nearly complete. Leveson is coming.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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2 Responses to “Nick picks Ed over Dave. Leveson is coming.”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    So destroying a cross-party supported Bill, worked on for several years, which would reform the libel laws here in the UK is Labours tactic. How pathetic can you get ?

    If this goes through the press will not forget come election time that it was Labour that pushed this through.

  2. swatantra says:

    Looks like someone is going to have to eat a lot of humbe pie, and its not Ed.
    Whatever legislation or charter devised to put the Press on their best behaviour is not going to work anyway. What will work is to close down some of the more blatant offenders, rather like the NotW, and that mean taking away their license to print rubbish.

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