The Deputy Prime Minister is considering taking the extraordinary step of dissenting publicly from his own Government’s response to the Leveson Inquiry’s blueprint for the future of a free press in Britain.
In an unprecedented move, Nick Clegg yesterday appeared to have won the approval of the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, to make a separate response to the Leveson Report, after David Cameron, at the same Government dispatch box yesterday afternoon.
The two men are due to meet this morning to try to thrash out a joint approach to the report, but admit this may prove impossible.
Meanwhile, former government spin doctor Andy Coulson and ex-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks will appear in court today to face charges linked to alleged corrupt payments to public officials.
The pair are among five people who are due to appear at Westminster Magistrates' Court accused of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.
In an attempt to win Liberal Democrat support, the Prime Minister is expected to reject the proposals from the Press Complaints Commission for self-regulation of the newspaper industry and will open the door to a form of regulation that is more independent of the industry – but without Parliamentary legislation.
But should Lord Justice Leveson come out strongly in favour of statutory regulation, this may not be enough to win over Mr Clegg, who is determined not to be seen to be giving in to a concerted lobbying campaign by newspapers.
If that is the case, he will make his own response to the report from the Government benches, setting out how his party sees the future of press regulation.
“We would obviously prefer not to do this,” said a Liberal Democrat source. “But clearly we have to examine our options if we can’t agree on a joint way forward. This is as a unique set of circumstances. If there isn’t a collective government view we should be able to express our views.”
A spokeswoman for the Speaker suggested Mr Bercow would not stand in Mr Clegg's way.
Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg spent yesterday afternoon with aides trying to formulate a response to Lord Justice Leveson's report, which was delivered to No 10 at lunchtime and was said to run to some 2,000 pages. As he left Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Cameron quipped to Mr Clegg: "Right, let's go away and do our reading."
In public, Mr Cameron promised to seek cross-party agreement on newspaper regulation. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, will meet her opposite number Harriet Harman to try to agree a joint way forward. In the Commons, Mr Cameron warned newspapers the status quo could not continue, and said he wanted to end up with an "independent regulatory system that can deliver".
"This Government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system," he said. "I think we should try to work across party lines on this issue. 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 Labour leader, Ed Miliband, welcomed Mr Cameron's commitment to consensus. He told MPs: "I hope we can work on an all-party basis. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change and I hope that this House can make it happen."
The Tory MP Philip Davies said statutory regulation of the press was a straight choice, with no third-way alternative. He said: "Can I warn you not to be remembered as the Prime Minister who introduced state regulation of the press. A free press is an essential part of a free democracy."
Mr Cameron replied: "I would agree a free press is absolutely vital to democracy. We should recognise all the press has done and should continue doing to uncover wrongdoing, to stand up to the powerful. This is vitally important. Whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press."
Ahead of today's publication, The Spectator said in a leading article that it would accept contractually binding self-regulation but would not sign up to anything "enforced by government". "If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the [other] laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to Parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828," it said.
In his first intervention on the issue, News International's chief executive, who was brought in after Rebekah Brooks quit, also warned against statutory regulation. Tom Mockridge said "fundamental" reform of media regulation was needed but that hacking victims should not be able to determine how it was done. "There is a strong view across the industry and outside it that the previous structure wasn't fully effective," he said. "But you still do not cross the Rubicon. Once the state intervenes, the state intervenes."
The Metropolitan Police has been formally warned to expect criticism in Lord Leveson's findings. The force was reported last night to have received one of the inquiry's "rule 13 letters" for its handling of the phone-hacking scandal and its relations with the media.
Timetable: The Judgement In Full
Six copies of the Leveson Inquiry report were handed to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, with one copy expected to be handed to his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg.
8am: Labour leader Ed Miliband receives a copy of report.
1.30pm: Lord Leveson publishes his report on Levesoninquiry.org.uk – where it can be viewed for free by the public. Lord Leveson reads a statement on the report at QE2 Centre, Westminster.
The judge will treat the statement like a judgment and will not take questions. He will leave soon afterwards for a conference on privacy in Australia.
3pm: David Cameron makes a statement to the House of Commons. Afterwards, Ed Miliband and MPs will give their responses.
4pm: The Hacked Off campaign holds a press conference.
Full debate in the House of Commons on press regulation.