Jeremy Hunt: how much longer can the government hold out?

Hunt wrote to Cameron expressing his support for the BSkyB bid, a month before taking control of the

Ever since last month’s revelations about the relationship between Jeremy Hunt’s office and News Corporation, the accepted wisdom has been that the reason the Culture Minister has remained in office is that David Cameron is using him as a human shield.

That shield was dented yesterday, after the Leveson Inquiry published a memo which showed that Cameron knew that Hunt was in favour of Rupert Murdoch’s £8bn bid to buy BSkyB. The memo was send on 19 November 2010, a month before Cameron handed Hunt the quasi-judicial power to rule on the bid. Although at that point, the decision was in the hands of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, it makes very clear that Hunt was actively supporting the bid.

Here it is in full:

James Murdoch is pretty furious at Vince's referral to Ofcom. He doesn't think he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom.

I am privately concerned about this because News Corp are very litigious and we could end up in the wrong place in terms of media policy.  

Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world's first multi-platform media operator, available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.  Isn't this what all media companies have to do ultimately?  And if so,we must be very careful that any attempt to block it is done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors.

The UK has the chance to lead the way ... but if we block it our media sector will suffer for years.  In the end I am sure sensible controls can be put into any merger to ensure there is plurality, but I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thomson/Channel 4/Guardian line that this represents a substantial change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.

What next?  Ofcom will issue their report saying whether it needs to go to the Competition Commission by 31 December.  It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm's length.  However I do think you, I, Vince and the DPM should meet to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result.

The memo was sent four days after a phone call between Hunt and James Murdoch - a phone call that was necessary because Hunt's permanent secretary by his permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens.

It is pretty damning stuff. Downing Street’s response was simply to say that the memo does not contradict Hunt’s public statements, as he has always made it clear that in principle he had no problem with the bid.

However, let us remind ourselves of Hunt’s statement to the Commons last month:

I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business.

It is difficult to read the memo as anything other than an intervention. Failing to tell the truth to parliament is a breach of the ministerial code. Cameron refused to investigate potential breaches when the news first broke last month. Will he now continue to do so? As the evidence builds up thick and fast that Hunt was not acting in an impartial manner, it is difficult to see how the government will justify its continued refusal to act.

Hunt is due to appear in front of the inquiry on 31 May.

UPDATE 1.45pm

David Cameron has strongly defended Hunt during an interview with ITV's Daybreak. He told the show that the memo was not relevant:

The key thing was it wasn't what [Hunt] had said in the past, it was how he was going to do the job. And I think, if you look at how he did the job, he asked for independent advice at every stage and he took that independent advice and he did it in a thoroughly proper way.

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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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