UK Politics

How the leaders reached Leveson deal

A deal. At the 59th minute of the 11th hour. After months of behind-the-scenes talks. After David Cameron went public declaring the gap between the parties to be unbridgeable.

Yesterday David Cameron met Nick Clegg to put a new proposal to him. Clegg then discussed that in three separate phone calls with Ed Miliband. A resumption of the cross-party talks followed involving Oliver Letwin and Harriet Harman. Meetings continued until 2.30am.

If the deal they made holds, there will be endless spin and analysis about who moved and who blinked, but perhaps more significant is that all parties wanted a deal rather than to stand alone and risk the wrath of either the victims of press abuse or of newspapers enraged by regulation.

Lord Justice Leveson's call for a system of voluntary independent self-regulation of the press posed a problem for the politicians - how to make any new system independent enough to satisfy the victims whilst at the same time making it not so independent as to convince the press to walk away and refuse to take part.

Months ago the government proposed that a Royal Charter rather than a legally based system was the key to unlocking a deal. A Royal Charter is, in effect, a letter from the Queen which establishes a public body like the BBC, or the new press regulator, without the need for a new law.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats abandoned their calls for a full new legal framework but, until last night, were demanding full legal underpinning of the charter. They now appear - and we still don't know the full details - to have accepted a watered-down version of that.

The Tories who argued for no press law of any sort now appear to have conceded the need for a legal clause designed to give parliament the assurance that the new press regulator cannot be amended by a minister under pressure from the press without the agreement of MPs.

Although not in the negotiating room, the press were constantly being informed and consulted. Key players, I'm told, were the Telegraph's Lord Black who is the key fix-it man for the industry, Associated Newspapers' Peter Wright, who is the former editor of the Mail on Sunday, the editor of the Times John Witherow and the editor of the FT Lionel Barber.

In the end it seems that politicians in all parties preferred to defuse a political time bomb together rather than face the blame on their own for failing to do so or for it blowing up in their faces.

It has, though, not been entirely defused yet.

UPDATE 1: 7.59am: Harriet Harman has just spelt out how the deal works. It comes in two parts :

1. A regulator established by Royal Charter, not law, which states that it can only be amended if parliament has a two thirds majority

2. A law which does not mention the press or a press regulator, but gives power of law to any Royal Charter that states that two thirds majority of parliament is needed to amend it. There is, of course, only one Charter of this sort - the one establishing a new press regulator!

UPDATE 2: 8.05am: I should make clear that not all those newspaper men I named were called or consulted in the last 24 hours. They were, however, seen as the "go to" figures in the industry in the past few days and months

UPDATE 3: 8.40am: It's all in the name.

The Conservatives are insisting that the deal done overnight rejects so-called "statutory underpinning" of press regulation. They can say this because there will be no new law that mentions either the press or their new regulator. They want to stress this as it is their reassurance to the newspaper industry for whom any so-called press law represents an unacceptable infringement of their rights by the state.

However, Labour will reply that the new Royal Charter establishing the new press regulator does have one small bit of law which underpins it ie a clause to be tabled today which legally enshrines any Charter (in reality, of course, this one) which states that two thirds of Parliament must support any amendment.

Whether someone calls this "legal underpinning" will depend on whether they are backing the Conservative argument or the Lab/Lib Dem one.

UPDATE 4: 10.30am: I understand that a representative of the pressure group Hacked Off was in the room through the night when the deal on press regulation was agreed by all parties last night. Sources are refusing to say who it was but I am told that it was not one of the victims.