Jeremy Hunt's coalition colleagues join call for inquiry

Simon Hughes and Bernard Jenkin urge an investigation into potential breaches of the ministerial cod

Is Jeremy Hunt on borrowed time? Downing Street is standing firm behind the Culture Secretary, but the pressure is on to launch an inquiry into whether he breached the ministerial code of conduct in his dealings with News Corporation.

Speaking on Question Time last night, the Liberal Democrat’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, said that he could not understand why the issue had not been referred to the independent watchdog. While he stopped short of calling for Hunt to resign, Hughes urged David Cameron – the only person who can refer the matter for further investigation – to revise his decision:

I don't know why he hasn't done it but I would have thought, to give confidence in the system, I hope the prime minister reconsiders his view.

That must be in Jeremy's interest. If Jeremy is correct in what he's said, he'll be vindicated. If he's not, then he has to take the consequences.

While Labour has been leading the charge for a full investigation, this makes Hughes the first senior Lib Dem to do so. He is not the only person within the coalition to call for an inquiry. Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chair of the public administration select committee, has also urged Cameron to refer Hunt’s case to Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on the ministerial code.

As Hughes said, it is difficult – at least on the face of things – to understand why an investigation has not been launched. The tranche of emails released on Tuesday between News Corp’s top public affairs official, Frederic Michel, and Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, appear to show Hunt as a collaborator rather than an independent adjudicator in the company’s controversial attempt to take 100 per cent control of BSkyB. It is impossible to believe the government line that Smith (who has fallen on his sword) acted on his own volition.

If Hunt goes, attention will inevitably look elsewhere in government. The cosy relations between Cameron, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are already well-documented – particularly the latter, with whom the Prime Minister shared Christmas lunch and riding excursions. In this context, Hunt is a useful foil. While the heat remains on him, it is off Cameron and George Osborne. As the country is gripped by double dip recession, the impression of corruption and intrigue and a government more concerned with the interests of wealthy media barons than ordinary people has the potential to be hugely damaging. The question is how long Conservative to command can feasible withstand the pressure to – at the very least – investigate Hunt’s actions.

UPDATE 9.45am:

Hunt has said that he will hand over all emails and texts to Smith relating to News Corp's bid to takeover BSkyB. The Culture Secretary said the details would "vindicate" him and show that he had acted with "total integrity".
 

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.