Leveson: 2.30am deal brings press reform peace - for now
Did Cameron blink first - or did he stand his ground? Either way, he's accepted a 'tiny bit of statute'
THE CROSS-PARTY deal reached in the small hours today to agree a Royal Charter for the regulation of the press avoids what looked certain to be a damaging defeat in the Commons tonight for David Cameron and a split in the coalition with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour Leader, announced on Radio 4's Today programme that a deal had been done. "Yes, there is an agreement," she said. "We have to publish the Charter this morning and this afternoon we have to put it before the House of Commons and the Lords."
She said it would be accepted by Hacked Off, the campaign to have the Leveson report implemented in full led by hacking victims such as the Dowlers and celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant.
Harman said it would allow a new independent regulator to be set up with real teeth - including the power to require papers to give prominence to corrections and exemplary fines for those refusing to abide by its findings.
Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, confirmed that the deal with be formally agreed at a meeting between the three leaders this morning. But speaking later on the same Today programme, she tried to win the war of rhetoric by insisting that Cameron had defeated Miliband. Her tone may yet cause a backlash from Labour.
Miller said: "We have stopped [Labour's] extreme form of press law which would have gone ahead otherwise. There will be no statutory underpinning. What we are talking about is a restatement that there should be no change in the Charter."
Actually, there is statutory underpinning - if only "a tiny bit of statute" as some were prophesying before the talks concluded
The stumbling block - from the Labour and Lib Dem point of view - had been that a Royal Charter could easily be overturned under pressure from the press barons without a vote in Parliament.
Cameron and the press barons were insisting that any legislation would kill the free press in Britain - and, going to press before the deal was done, the Daily Mail and the Murdoch papers came out this morning with a series of apocalyptic headlines.
The compromise thrashed out in the wee small hours in Miliband's room allows the framework set out in the Royal Charter to be safeguarded by a clause in a Government bill. This will prevent any Royal Charter from being changed without a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Parliament. The clause will be tabled today as an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the Lords.
Both sides are now claiming victory and it's difficult to tell for sure who deserves the accolade - but it looks like David Cameron blinked first to allow the cross-party deal to be done.
The Prime Minister, who declared the talks had broken down last week, called Clegg yesterday to revive the talks. But Miliband was also loathe to alienate the press barons completely in the run-up to the next general election and three calls to him from Clegg laid the ground for fresh talks.
The team sitting up late into the night was Clegg, Miliband, Harman, and Cameron's right-hand man, Oliver Letwin. They reached the compromise deal at 2.30 am.
The resistance of Cameron and the press barons was made plain by Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, who said he would not sign up to a press licensed by the state, potentially putting The Spectator outside the new law.
Boris Johnson, former editor of the Spectator, used his Daily Telegraph column today to fire a broadside in support of Nelson's act of defiance. "I wholly approve of the stance taken by my fellow Daily Telegraph columnist Fraser Nelson in refusing to sign up to any of it, and if I were editing The Spectator today, I hope I would do the same. It is time for Parliament to remember the commercial and political freedoms that made this country great. Think of Wilkes, and Liberty, and vote this nonsense down."
That was before the agreement was reached. It is likely that diehard Tories will fire more salvos at the compromise deal, but BBC political editor Nick Robinson said the deal had "defused a political time bomb". Will Murdoch see it that way?
The Sun, which also went to press before the deal was done, carried a picture of Winston Churchill to evoke the Dunkirk fighting spirit Cameron and his Tory MPs needed to summon as they faced certain defeat in the Commons tonight. The Sun may still see the deal as Cameron's Munich. ·