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.
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".