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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage