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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.