First we had the prime minister abruptly calling off the talks, citing irreconcilable differences with Labour and the Lib Dems. Clegg and Miliband were only given a couple of hours’ notice about the announcement, journalists were given 30 minutes.
After that, it looked like the prime minister was heading for inevitable defeat in a vote today on the Lib-Lab proposals for a Royal Charter backed by statute. His aides seemed to recognise such, saying that the prime minister would promise to repeal such a law if there was a Tory majority in 2015.
Now this morning, we have a deal – and the prime minister appears to have backed down on almost all the major points. There will be statutory underpinning to the bill (in the form of a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill stating there should be no change to the Charter without a 2/3 majority in the Lords and Commons). There will be no media veto of the members of the regulatory board, and the regulators will be able to order (“direct” in the legal jargon) editors to print prominent apologies for prominent errors.
An outline deal was struck at 2.30am, not in Number 10, as might be expected, but in Ed Miliband’s office. Present were Nick Clegg, Oliver Letwin, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman. Four members of Hacked Off are reported to have been involved in the talks until a late stage. Neither David Cameron nor Maria Miller were there. What’s more, the PM’s official spokesman could not confirm this morning whether Cameron was even awake when negotiations ended. “He was kept in touch” was all we were told.
This bizarre set of events raises several puzzling questions:
1) What changed over the weekend to make Cameron decide to cave in on the key points after all?
2) Why did Cameron make such a public fuss over points on which he was willing to concede – therefore making the deal look like a defeat?
3) Why were neither the prime minister nor the culture secretary involved in the final talks?
4) Why were Hacked Off, an openly political pro-regulation lobby group, in the room at all, especially given there was no press representation?
5) Was Cameron asleep at the key moment?