By Kate Holton and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron woke on Friday to find usually hostile newspapers gushing about his statesman-like qualities after he signaled his opposition to a new law governing the press.
After his party suffered a night of humiliation in three parliamentary elections, instead of facing questions over his leadership, he was cheered for rejecting the main plank of proposals from a public inquiry he set up in the wake of outrage at the excesses of tabloid newspapers.
Under a headline over two pages lauding "Cameron's Stand for Freedom", the right-wing Daily Mail said a "Defiant PM" had refused to accept the call for laws to control the press.
"To his enormous credit, however, David Cameron sees this report for what it is - a mortal threat to the British people's historic right to know," it said in its editorial.
"If he prevails in protecting that right, with the help of like-minded freedom lovers in the Commons and Lords, he will earn a place of honor in our history."
The Daily Telegraph, another right-leaning newspaper that has been far from fulsome in its support for Cameron, said the unexpected decision had revealed his leadership and acceptance that press freedom was "a constitutional necessity".
"His decision tells us also something about Mr. Cameron's capacity for statesmanship," the paper said in a commentary piece on its front page. "He appreciates the need for decisions that are unfashionable or unpopular.
"He has answered the hopes of a Conservative Party that sometimes wonders what he stands for," it said, under a cartoon mocking the inquiry with the line: (Caption to be supplied by cross-party committee of MPs).
Cameron's clear sign he would reject the main recommendation of the report from Lord Justice Brian Leveson followed a year-long inquiry that heard in unflinching detail from celebrities, victims of crime and others who said the notoriously aggressive press had ruined their lives.
It also followed weeks of frantic lobbying by the newspapers within Westminster, who argued any involvement of the law in press regulation would amount to state control and an attack on free speech, putting Britain on a par with Zimbabwe.
Critically, Cameron's stance also puts him on the same side as the majority of his senior Conservative ministers who had openly opposed legislation, and in alliance with Boris Johnson, a former journalist and London mayor who is cheered by the press and seen as a possible challenger to Cameron in the future.
While it will bolster his position in the eyes of press barons ahead of a 2015 election, it is not without risk.
It puts him in clear opposition to Nick Clegg, leader of the junior Liberal Democrat party in the coalition, and vulnerable to defeat in parliament if the opposition force a vote.
It also earned him the condemnation of those who spoke out against the press, including the families of murder victims, who accused the prime minister of betrayal. Both the politicians who oppose Cameron and the press victims plan to keep up the pressure as lawmakers try to find a consensus.
Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative party grandee and former foreign secretary, told Reuters the pressure applied by senior members of the cabinet had meant Cameron could not simply accept the Leveson recommendations in full.
He had previously given his backing to statutory regulation.
He also described the lavish praise from the country's press as a "mixed blessing" that should prompt caution in the party.
"Governments normally like press support but when it's press support because you're not responding to what many people would have liked but the press didn't want, then obviously you've got to be careful," he said.
Commentators on the popular ConservativeHome website mostly backed Cameron for showing backbone over the issue but even they warned he should not get used to the adulation.
Rupert Murdoch's Sun tabloid, which has been particularly tough on Cameron's government and would typically oppose any apparent attack on the press, joined his Times paper in being conciliatory towards Leveson and less exuberant about Cameron.
The 4 million pound ($6 million) inquiry was ordered after the Sun's sister title the News of the World admitted hacking into phone messages on an industrial scale to generate ever more salacious stories.
"Much of Lord Leveson's report on the press makes sense," the Sun said in its editorial, adding it applauded Cameron's decision to oppose any legal basis for a new watchdog.
The only major newspaper to question Cameron's decision was the left-leaning Guardian, which led much of the coverage of the phone hacking scandal last year.
"The prime minister has surprised many, especially the victims, with his multi-leveled concerns about statute," it said. "It is not clear if this is a position of principle, or to win friends on the Tory benches and in Fleet Street.
"Leveson was the seventh occasion in as many decades that an inquiry has been commissioned into the behavior of the press. It's time to get it right."
(Reporting by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Sophie Hares)
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