A few weeks ago over a long lunch, a senior Tory warned that Cameron was going to end up cornered over press reform after Lord Puttnam rather unhelpfully decided to add Leveson-friendly amendments into the defamation bill.
The person said the amendment to introduce a cheap arbitration service between newspapers and the public meant that Leveson could end up being “put into law through the back door”. He added:
It is going to cause Cameron a huge problem when the bill comes back to the Commons.
At the time, Cameron’s aides played down the significance of Puttnam’s antics, confident that the amendment would become just a minor irritation once the Tories secured cross-party support for the Royal Charter, rendering the need for such amendments to the libel laws bill obsolete. They have consistently refused new press laws, despite Lord Justice Leveson advocating exactly this in his report on press ethics.
That optimism now looks misplaced. Oliver Letwin’s Royal Charter scheme to set out rules by which the British press might be regulated without having to resort to legislation, has hit an impasse.
The Lib Dems and Labour will not back his Royal Charter without a series of amendments which the Tories will not countenance. Lord Puttnam’s amendments is fast turning from a minor irritation into a massive stumbling bloc.
Cameron is now facing an invidious choice. He can try to force through the defamation bill without the amendment, but could end up in with an explosive confrontation if Lib Dems team up with Labour –and even pockets of his own backbenchers – try to force it through.
Or he could just drop the bill, designed to loosen Britain’s 19th century libel laws. Campaigners are furious, saying it would be a travesty to drop a much-needed bill that has been more than three years in the making over political brinkmanship.
Cameron’s preferred route is to secure Lib Dem’s support for the Royal Charter and then push the defamation bill back to the Commons. But time is fast running out. It might be time for Cameron and Letwin to go back to the press barons and see if some Labour-Lib Dem concessions over the Royal Charter could be made to secure the bigger prize.