David Cameron is currently leading a debate in the Commons over the deal struck late last night to regulate the press with a Royal Charter. That debate has so far been characterised by a great deal of backslapping by all three party leaders, to the extent that Nick Clegg joked:
If all three parties behave like this after the general election, they’ll have problems fitting us all into Downing Street.
He had a slightly tougher time however when trying to explain the measures to the parliamentary Tory party, which met before the debate started.
The prime minister began by explaining to his MPs that he felt he had had no choice but to come to an agreement with Labour and the Lib Dems because those two parties were blocking the government’s legislative agenda in the Lords. He added that last week’s hiatus in talks – which now looks strange given that Cameron appears to have conceded on much of what he said last week separated the two sides – was necessary to get Labour to declare its bottom line.
His message was not universally well-received. Amid what one MP called a “subdued” mood, several MPs expressed their concerns about the new plans.
John Whittingdale asked the PM to ensure that he did not agree to another judge-led inquiry along the lines of that by Lord Justice Leveson. The prime minister dodged the question, but thanked the chairman of the culture select committee for his broad support for the measure.
Conor Burns criticised Cameron for outsourcing policy making to Hugh Grant, a reference to the close involvement of Hacked Off right up until the late stages of the discussions.
Eric Ollerenshaw warned colleagues not to try and dress this up as a party victory, as he said the public would be put off by point scoring (in what sounds like a rebuke to Maria Miller, who gave a particularly <a title="Spectator Coffee House – Harriet Harman and Maria Miller both claim victory in Leveson talks” href=”http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/isabel-hardman/2013/03/harriet-harman-and-maria-miller-both-claim-victory-in-leveson-talks/” target=”_blank”>partisan interview to the Today programme this morning.)
Angie Bray praised the prime minister for not “crossing the Rubicon” by bringing in full statutory regulation. “But,” she added, “it does look rather as if you have dipped your toe in, prime minister.” Cameron, of course, denied this, saying the statutory underpinning for the Royal Charter (which says it cannot be changed without a 2/3 majority in both Houses) does not even mention the press.
Peter Lilley pressed Cameron to say what kind of stories the press publish now that they would not be able to under the new regime. The prime minister said it would not affect what got published, merely what would happen after something libellous or criminal was published.
Other complaints were aired too. Therese Coffey said she was angry that Hacked Off were involved in the talks (the PM replied that he could not dictate who went into the leader of the opposition’s office). Jonathan Djanogly said he was irritated by the lack of information coming from Tory HQ or Number 10 during the weekend. John Redwood said he disagreed with the idea of any form of legislation.
There were of course some supportive contributions too – from Nadhim Zahawi, Paul Uppal and George Eustice. But the tone of the meeting and the number of hostile questions show how deeply uneasy large parts of the party are with the compromise struck by the prime minister.