More than 40 Conservatives, including four former cabinet minsters, have signed an open letter calling for David Cameron not to shy away from introducing a tougher system of press regulation.
In the letter the party figures, including former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and two former party chairmen, Caroline Spelman and Lord Fowler, warn against adopting press recommendations for a new system of self-regulation.
Their intervention signals a potential shift in the politics of media regulation. It is the first time that senior Conservative figures have suggested they would not be opposed in principle to legal regulation of the industry.
Lord Justice Leveson is due to publish his inquiry's findings at the end of this month and ferocious lobbying operation is under way from both sides in the argument.
The signatories believe their letter may show Downing Street that crossparty consensus on media reform is possible at Westminster.
“No one wants our media controlled by the government but, to be credible, any new regulator must be independent of the press as well as from politicians,” the letter says.
It adds: “After eight months, 650 witnesses and 6,000 pages of evidence submitted to the Leveson inquiry, we can be clear about two things.
”Firstly, that a free press is essential for a free society. Secondly, that there are fundamental weaknesses in the current model of self-regulation which cannot be ignored.
Lord Black, chairman of the funding body for the Press Complaints Commission, told the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics he wanted a form of “muscular” self-regulation. That would mean a new organisation with the power to launch investigations and levy fines of up to £1m.
But signatories to today's letter to the Guardian warned of fundamental weaknesses in the current system and called for a “credible” new regulator.
The letter states: “We are concerned that the current proposal put forward by the newspaper industry would lack independence and risks being an unstable model destined to fail, like previous initiatives over the past 60 years.”
Brian Cathcart, director of campaign group Hacked Off, said: “This is a welcome development which shows that demands for a truly effective and independent system of regulation are coming from right across the political spectrum.
”The idea that the newspaper industry can get away with the shocking treatment of families like the Dowlers and carry on with business as usual is clearly nonsense.
“We hope the Prime Minister will seize the opportunity presented by his own backbenchers and agree to hold cross-party talks on how to take forward Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations as soon as it is practical to do so.”
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