NICK CLEGG is threatening to defy David Cameron by making his own parliamentary statement on the Leveson Inquiry today – a move which could plunge the coalition into crisis.
The Liberal Democrats are considering forming a pact with Labour to introduce statutory regulation of the press, amid signs that many Conservatives would refuse to back such legislation.
Mr Cameron, who has received a copy of Lord Justice Leveson's report, may now be forced to give MPs a free vote on the recommendations.
Mr Cameron has told the House of Commons that a "free press is absolutely vital for a healthy democracy". The remark came after a series of Conservative backbench MPs questioned Mr Cameron over his commitment to maintaining a free press.
The comments were interpreted by some insiders as a signal that Mr Cameron was preparing to rule out statutory regulation of the media in the near term.
Several Conservative cabinet ministers have already publicly indicated their support for such a move.
There is concern that allowing MPs to set up a system of media regulation would ultimately mean that newspapers would be deterred from investigating politicians or their policies for fear of being penalised.
However, Mr Cameron also said that the current "status quo" could not continue and said that newspapers should offer "prominent apologies" to victims and face fines if they make mistakes. This could occur without MPs passing new laws to regulate the press.
"A free press is absolutely vital for a healthy democracy," Mr Cameron said. "We should recognise all that the press has done to uncover wrongdoing and to stand up to the powerful. That is vitally important and, whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press in our country."
He added: "This government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system. . . What matters most I believe is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public have confidence."
The newspaper industry is now under pressure to offer to introduce a new independent system of regulation that will meet Mr Cameron's demands.
Downing Street received copies of the executive summary of Lord Leveson's report yesterday. A very limited number of copies of the full report were then received later in the day.
A small number of staff in both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg's office spent the day reading the report – which runs to hundreds of pages and criticises the press, politicians and the police.
Mr Clegg's office approached the speaker of the House of Commons yesterday to ask whether he could take the unprecedented step of making a statement on the report today – after Mr Cameron has spoken in the House of Commons. Mr Cameron was previously due to respond for the entire coalition.
In a statement last night, the Speaker's Office said: "If the government wishes to make more than one statement tomorrow that is a matter for the government.
"At any point, if any minister wishes to make a statement, we will accommodate them."
It is understood that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg spoke about the report last night. A special group of coalition ministers will today convene to discuss whether the government can agree on a common position over the report.
Mr Cameron is also hoping to have talks with Labour about a cross-party deal on the Leveson report. The Labour Party has demanded that the recommendations be introduced in full. (© Daily Telegraph, London)