by Atul Hatwal
It was a weekend of fraught Leveson lobbying and negotiation. After a pugnacious performance from the prime minister last Thursday, when he abruptly curtailed the cross-party talks, the reality of his political position has slowly dawned on him.
The votes in parliament weren’t there. Specifically, David Cameron was headed for one of the biggest defeats for a sitting prime minister, on a fully whipped vote, ever.
With a potential pro-Leveson majority of over 40 in prospect, no previous prime minister in the past 90 years, not Gordon Brown, John Major, Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson, would have suffered such a reverse on a party political issue.
Late Sunday night negotiations were still ongoing but the outline of a weekend deal hammered out by Nick Clegg, mediating between Cameron and Ed Miliband, had emerged.
For David Cameron it will represent an astonishing volte face from his position on Thursday. If the new deal is confirmed this morning, as expected, he will have U-turned on three central points:
- Statutory underpinning for the royal charter – the charter will be embedded in law. A super-majority in parliament will be required to change its terms, rather than the charter being amendable by the privy council
- The editors’ veto on membership of the regulator – the editors will no longer be able to block appointments. A majority decision of the appointment panel will be able to confirm membership of the regulator
- The editors’ control over the code of conduct – the editors will no longer write the code. It will be drafted by a joint team of editors, journalists and members of the public
David Cameron will ultimately accept 90% of the case made by the victims’ lobby group Hacked Off, as embodied in the Labour and Lib Dem proposals for a royal charter. The one compromise by the pro-Leveson coalition is likely to be to cede the option of exemplary damages against egregiously non-compliant organisations.
At the end of November, when David Cameron initially rejected Lord Leveson’s recommendations, the calculation in Number 10 was that even if, somehow, the Lib Dems sided with Labour, David Cameron would still be rewarded by the press for standing by them.
On Thursday, this remained his position. But two factors have subsequently up-ended Number 10’s initial judgement: the scale of impending parliamentary defeat and Cameron’s increasingly weak standing within his party.
A major Commons’ defeat, initiated by the Liberal Democrats, would elicit a savage backlash from the right of the party. The whips had already picked up evidence that a sizeable minority on the right was planning to abstain, despite their personal opposition to Leveson, to boost the scale of defeat and precipitate a crisis.
This might have been manageable, but with David Cameron already a wounded leader, the danger to the prime minister could become life threatening.
Competing teams of backbench leadership teams have been operating for months and are nearing their target of 46 signatures to trigger a formal leadership election. This process would spell the end of David Cameron’s leadership, if not immediately then in the medium term. At minimum, the moment a challenge was declared, Cameron would become a lame duck.
Number 10 feared the loss of authority from a major defeat would tip enough wavering dissenters over the edge into outright public rebellion to give the hard core malcontents the extra signatures they needed.
The result was that over the weekend, for Number 10, the substance of press reform and relations with the fourth estate became secondary concerns to the prime minister’s immediate political mortality.
However, while these pressures are undeniable, the question remains: if this U-turn is completed, will the harm to Cameron actually be worse?
He has soaked up months of attacks as a poodle of the press barons, confirming many of the negatives the public associate with the prime minister. If Cameron backs Leveson now, the press will vent their full fury and spleen on him for betraying them at the last.
If anything, the prolonged savaging the prime minister will receive at the hands of the press will be all the more vicious. They will paint him as a liar and flatterer and highlight his propensity for last minute U-turns as evidence of his feckless lack of leadership.
Inevitably, this is going to have an impact on David Cameron’s personal ratings, as it will his authority with his backbenchers.
The mood among Tory leadership loyalists familiar with the impending U-turn was phlegmatic. When contacted by Uncut about the potential reaction from the press, the response from one was telling,
“The PM stuck his neck out for the press. He took the flak from Hugh Grant and his mates. But what did the press do? Did they have his back? The first and only editorial in the Mail calling for unity behind the PM was in the last fortnight. What do they expect?”
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut