Political sketch: Digesting the culture secretary

Helicopters were scrambled - but Hunt survives.

You could tell it was really serious when they scrambled the SkyCopter to make sure he got to court without doing a runner; by the time he climbed into the dock he looked as if it had been circling his house, if not his bed, all night.

And so Jeremy Hunt, fourth cousin once removed (for the moment) from the Queen, enthusiastic Lambada dancer and presently Secretary of State of Culture Media and Sport, finally got to meet his fate - or at least its presence on earth, Robert Jay.

As befitted the auspiciousness of the day, Jay, chief interrogator of the Leveson inquiry, had made his own special effort, matching tie with trademark yellow framed spectacles, as he prepared to embark on the long-trailed evisceration of the hapless Hunt.

The victim, whose face looked as if it had been rubbed down with a chamois leather, swore to tell all truthfully and sat down quickly as befits someone whose legs weren't getting all the usual messages.

And his nerves immediately transferred to his arms as he windmilled his way through answers to the joy of any body language expert employed to comment on his behaviour.

Mr Jay, whose method of questioning is to quietly encourage his target to make a mistake, established that the Culture Secretary had been an early cheerleader for the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB. Indeed he was so keen on it that he dropped a note to the Prime Minister backing the deal.

As his Coalition colleague Vince Cable, charged with judging the bid, went about his business Jeremy happily stayed in contact with the Murdoch camp who alerted him that all was not necessarily going well.

Having heard that Hunt texted Chancellor George Osborne, who also moonlights as the Tories chief strategist (a vacancy expected to occur soon), to say he thought Vince Cable might be screwing the deal up.

But then suddenly Vince was outed as a Murdoch enemy in the Telegraph sting operation and PM Dave gave him the job of sorting it out.

Arms, hands and eyes were all on the move when Jay asked what was the difference between Vince's anti-Murdoch stance which got him the sack from the judging job and his pro-Murdoch stance which got him it.

That was dead easy, said Jeremy, because obviously, unlike Vince, he had a place in his brain where he could lock away all his personal views and never let them affect his judgement.

"I wasn't biased because I set aside my sympathies," he said.

As the inquiry digested this, gifted Mr Jay then moved on to the hundreds of emails and texts between Mr Hunt's office and the Murdoch empire which have led some people to take a less charitable view of what then happened.

It was all these contacts which led Jeremy's special advisor Adam Smith to fall on his (or somebody's) sword and depart the scene.

Adam Smith, "the most decent, straight, honourable person," according to his one-time boss, had become just too text friendly with News Corp's chief corporate greaser Fred Michel who "sucked" him into inappropriate language.

Yes, said Jeremy, he did consider his own position, but decided the right thing was to stay.

Mr Hunt, who looked as if he was losing weight by the hour, even provoked the sympathy of Lord Leveson himself who gently warned his rottweiler to back off from biting him too much.

The Culture Secretary did provoke his own slight pause in proceedings when he announced that having got the job of deciding on the BSkyB bid, "I had to make sure that our democracy was safe."

But it was an unnerved democracy-saviour who stumbled his way through the rest of the afternoon as Jay mercilessly worked his way through message after message leaving Jeremy making desperate attempts to hang on to his job and keep his patron the PM (due up himself on June 14) out of the firing line.

It was nice of Robert Jay to remind Jeremy Hunt that he is one of the sponsoring Ministers for the very inquiry that had just spent six hours examining his entrails.

As the Culture Secretary was finally allowed his freedom, his hold on the job seemed no stronger than it had been when he arrived.

Earlier, the inquiry heard that when Rebekah Brooks resigned Mr Hunt texted: "About bloody time."

Lets hope Dave's not taking notes.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.