Conservative Diary

« Bullying MPs won't help the cause of press freedom | Main | The BBC is simply too big to be properly governed. It's time it was broken up. »

Cameron's Leveson problem is Farage's media opportunity

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter

Farage Nigel May 2012More than the 40 or so Conservative MPs who signed it will agree with the Guardian letter supporting statutory press regulation.  And since over 40 Tories plus Labour and the Liberal Democrats equals a Commons majority, it might seem to follow that statutory regulation will now definitely happen.  But there is many a slip between cup and lip.  Although the Leveson inquiry will almost certainly propose some form of it, David Cameron may well respond with a fudge - which is why the form of words he used when giving evidence to it, "independent regulation with statutory backing", is ambiguous and ambivalent.

For example, the Prime Minister could propose a Press Complaints Commission replacement with more independent members and new powers to force newspapers to publish corrections and apologies.  My point is not that this would be the right solution - though there is a lot to be said for it - but that it might appease some of the Guardian letter signatories.  However, it is clear that Mr Cameron will be under eye-watering political pressure to introduce statutory regulation.  Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are already in talks about press regulation, for all the world as if they - and not Mr Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader- were leading a Coalition Government.

The Labour leader is sure to call after for "all-party talks" to "establish a consensus" after Lord Leveson publishes his report.  The Prime Minister will then be damned if he fudges and damned if he doesn't.  If he does, he may win a little temporary goodwill from the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and the Sun (indeed, the entire Murdoch stable), but he could lose a Commons vote on statutory regulation, since a fudge might not be enough to appease those Conservative letter signatories.  He could then have little alternative but to bow to the will of MPs and introduce a statutory regulation bill, thus undermining his authority still further.

But if Mr Cameron doesn't fudge, and seeks to go along with statutory regulation, the other two main parties, and a big chunk of Tory MPs, the consequences will be scarcely more pleasant for him.  A significant slice of Conservative MPs is as opposed to statutory regulation as their colleagues are all for it.  It includes the Prime Minister's main party rival, Boris Johnson, and most eloquent supporter, Michael Gove - two possible future leadership contenders.  George Osborne is unlikely to be enthusiastic about such a move.  At the very least, there would be a vociferous inter-Tory Cabinet row.

In the meantime, the Mail and Telegraph and Express and Sun won't sit politely back and wait for Mr Cameron to make up his mind.  Their coverage of nearly everything he does will warn him of the consequences of crossing them.  To some degree, this is already happening, as their approach to the Mitchell affair indicated (and the Telegraph's assault on the Guardian letter signatories confirmed).  Downing Street may well have taken this into account, and concluded that the right-wing press has nowhere else to go.  After all, the Telegraph, Mail, Express and (probably) Sun aren't going to recommend that their readers vote Labour or Liberal Democrat.

Furthermore, newspaper readership is falling.  And in any event, readers don't simply do what newspapers tell them to do; newspapers, rather, react to what their readers are already doing.  All the same, as Lord Ashcroft's latest research has reminded us, newspaper coverage matters.  Their choice of stories, their phrasing of headlines, their tone of analysis, their use of space - all these have effect.  David Cameron's problem is thus Nigel Farage's opportunity.  After all, the Express is already signed up to UKIP (as far as I can see).  It is true that The Telegraph and Mail won't follow suit, and back a party unlikely to win a single Commons seat at the next election.

Nor will the Sun.  But they don't have to.  All they have to do, in order to give the thumbscrew on the Prime Minister another twist, is to give Mr Farage a bit more profile and UKIP a bit more space and sympathy - semi-permanently, if Mr Cameron eventually comes down on the side of statutory regulation: the UKIP leader is already getting more and longer TV coverage.  Mr Farage is a smart operator and will have sniffed the wind.  I wouldn't be at all suprised to see him add loud support for press freedom to the party's present support for grammar schools.  Warning Downing Street of this possibility, if it hasn't clocked it already, is part of my life's rich tapestry.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.