Through the labyrinth

Can a bill to bring in Leveson-style press regulation get through the Commons, in the teeth of opposition from David Cameron and the Conservative chunk of the government?

The general assumption is that a bill of that magnitude can only get through with the support of a government, but there are ways to get a bill before the House without it….

First, let's rule out the private members' bill route. It would certainly be possible for one of the MPs close to the top of the next annual ballot for the right to bring in a bill, to choose press regulation as their target. They could probably attract in the 100 MP supporters needed to move a second reading debate to a vote, even on a Commons Friday. But they would probably come to grief at the committee and report stages, when opponents would bury them in amendments, which there would not be time to debate. So if a private members' bill were to be the vehicle, it would need government support, in the form of extra debating time.

Could Labour simply introduce a bill of their own, and hold a second reading debate on an Opposition Day? Precedent is against, because the relevant Standing Order - No 14(2) - talks about "matters" brought forward for debate by the Opposition, and that has always been taken to exclude bills.

So how to get a bill into the Commons sausage machine? After talking to a couple of gnarled ex-whips, a strategy emerged. First, get leave to bring in a bill through the Ten Minute Rule Bill procedure. An MP makes a ten minute speech in favour of a bill on press regulation, and, almost certainly, another MP makes a similar speech against, and forces a vote.

If leave is refused, it's game over. But this would be the first test of the oft-repeated claim that there is a Commons majority for Leveson. The government is apparently working on a bill, if only to show how difficult it would be to draft one, and there are plenty of legal brains around who could complete the job, if required.

Assuming the vote is won and the leave of the House is given, the next step would be for Labour to use one of its Opposition Day debates to put a motion calling on the government to find time for a second reading debate. Such a motion would probably be in order because it is a proposition and not yet a bill. And, if won, it would put the ball firmly in the government's court. But the government, which controls the debating time of the Commons, would not be compelled to grant the time. Even so it would put ministers (well, Conservative ones, anyway) in quite a difficult position.

And the fun would not stop there. How would ministers answer the chair's ritual query "second reading what day?" Either the government would allocate debating time - and the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, is supposed to be the representative of the Commons to government, and could expect to be reminded of that at regular intervals - or it might just be that the Speaker would decide to stretch a point and, in the light of a majority vote calling for time to be made available, allow a second reading on an Opposition Day.*

It would certainly be a precedent-setting move, but it could be argued that the rules of the House need to catch up with the realities of a hung parliament. (An alternative on an Opposition Day would be to put down a motion which, within the limit of 250 words, would be a legislative prescription. That might be just as effective.)

The next problem is that programme motions for the consideration of a bill can be moved only by a minister of the Crown - and without a programme motion our theoretical bill would run into the sand: the fate which confronted the Lords Reform Bill before the summer. But in a Parliament where the PM and his deputy can deliver contradictory statements from the dispatch box, might a Lib Dem minister stand up and move such a motion? (Deputy Leader of the Commons, Tom Brake, come on down!)

They would certainly think it was sweet revenge for the defeat of Lords reform, which followed the clear impossibility of passing a programme motion.

All this would require some deft political handling. A heavy-handed campaign by Labour would drive the Tory backbench supporters of regulation (and there are perhaps 20 to 40) back into the government fold. A cross-party alliance, with Conservatives and Lib Dems prominent in its activities, would be required. It might prove smart politics for Labour and the Lib Dems to allow a free vote on their side, and so make it more difficult for Conservatives to whip against a bill.

Would this course of action split the coalition? They're supposed to be working together to fix the economy, so I think it would be hard for the Conservatives to walk away on this issue. Just as it would be hard for Nick Clegg to duck the opportunity to pass a Press Regulation Bill, if Labour offered it. Doubtless there would be a price to pay, but for the Lib Dems there might be a pay-off in asserting a bit of independence.

Of course, no strategy is foolproof. Some supporters of regulation might change their minds when confronted with concrete proposals. Some cunning countermove might be devised to bring the process to a halt. It might even run into trouble in the Lords. But my ex-whip contacts both talked their way through this course of action, grunted, and agreed: "It might work."

* For the avoidance of doubt, I have not asked Mr Speaker what he would do; this is me speculating.

Around the BBC