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.

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.