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.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.