By Paul Goodman
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- David Cameron could have ended his talks with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and refused to put his proposals to a vote in the Commons at all. If he had done so, however, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have moved amendments seeking statutory regulation of the press to the Crime and Courts Bill for debate on Monday – as they're apparently planning to do in any event.
- The Prime Minister could then have withdrawn the entire bill, rather than allow statutory regulation to take place. However, Clegg and Miliband would doubtless then have sought to amend another bill to the same effect. Cameron would then have had to withdraw that bill to avoid statutory regulation – and so on. The Government he leads would have been paralysed. By lining up with Miliband on statutory regulation, Clegg has clapped a loaded gun to the Prime Minister's head.
He has therefore decided to throw the dice, and put his own proposals for press reform, presumably based on the Royal Charter idea that he has championed, to the vote on Monday. It is impossible to be sure of the outcome. However, it will be surprising if the Prime Minister's plans are carried. Enough Conservative MPs want statutory regulation to make it likely that it will happen. MPs have always disliked the press, and memories of the expenses scandal are still raw. Many want revenge. Cameron doesn't desire statutory regulation, partly from principle and partly out of calculation, but the choice he now faces is stark: statutory regulation, or a functioning government. Unsurprisingly, he has chosen the latter. Three big points stand out –
- Statutory regulation may well turn out to be a Dutch Auction in reverse. That Fleet Street is almost certainly incapable of regulating itself properly is very bad. That politicians will probably now regulate it by statute is even worse. A free society is impossible without a free press, atrociously as it very often behaves. Unless Cameron allows a bill to be brought forward, the Crime and Courts Bill, or some other piece of legislation also unconnected with statutory regulation of the press, will have heaped upon it the awesome responsibility of setting out how freedom of expression and responsibility of conduct are to be reconciled. Since one must ultimately prevail over the other, the attempt will fail and – in all likelihood fail badly. It is possible that MPs will carry out a kind of Dutch Auction in reverse – competing with each other to table and vote for ever-tougher amendments and ever-tighter regulation. This will affect not only Fleet Street, but local and regional papers and magazines. Some MP or other is bound to come up with the bright idea of trying to regulate the internet too, while Parliament is at it. The result will be a dog's breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- There is a real danger of a BBC Fleet Street. Why else are the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times and the Daily Mirror now for some form or statutory regulation, and the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Murdoch stable against? The heart of the mischief lies in Leveson's proposals for third party complaints – an invitation to every taxpayer-financed lobby group in the land to bombard the new regulator with complaints about every conceivable grievance. You may or may not approve of the right-of-centre tabloids' approach to immigration, welfare, crime, the EU and so on. But it represents a majority slice of public opinion on these matters. Watch for a third party complaint industry which will target those papers' stories on those matters, as they seek to shut down free expression by burdening them with complaints that they will be obliged by statute to respond to. Newspaper lawyers already play for safety by advising that legitimate stories be dumped for fear of the bother of a lawsuit. Newspaper editors will slowly but surely respond to the new complaint industry by limiting the range of stories that the new – and doubtless politically correct – regulator could consider unreasonable. This will help drive voters who rage about the EU, crime, welfare and immigration further into UKIP's arms – and those of new movements which may not be, as UKIP is, respectable: part of the political mainstream.
- Clegg's alliance with Miliband is a reminder that the Coalition is moving towards its end – with consequent risks to Cameron's leadership. The Coalition will presumably break up at some point between now and the next election, and the Liberal Democrats move to a confidence and supply arrangement, as its two component parts try to distance themselves from each other and make their own pitch to the electorate. There is no intrinsic reason why this should leave the two partners on bad terms. But those terms haven't been good since the AV referendum went down: think of the NHS Bill, Lords reform, green energy, welfare spending reductions, the EU referendum, the West Lothian question…the list of disagreements is almost endless, and it was crowned by the act of betrayal in which Clegg tore up his promise to support a reduction in the size of the Commons. The poisoned relations between the two parties, especially outside Westminster, and the incompatibility of their philosophies on social and constitutional matters helps to demonstrate that the most natural alliance in British politics is between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Vince Cable is already preparing for such a future coalition – his preferred outcome. Miliband may shun it, but at the very least he can use Clegg's party as a tool to destabilise Cameron, which he is now doing.
The Prime Minister didn't win the last election. He recommended that the Coalition be formed. It is inherently unstable – arguably, increasingly so. Most of his backbenchers can't stand the "yellow bastards". Some of them can't stand him.
The budget is unlikely to break new ground. The party will lose seats in this spring's local elections. UKIP is on the march, and Cabinet Ministers are on manoevres. Adam Afriyie and his supporters are watching and waiting.
I still believe a challenge to his leadership is more unlikely than not, but Cameron's strong move on Leveson is, paradoxically, a sign of weakness. The speed at which events are creating their own momentum is gathering.