How the Lib Dems should handle a vote on Hunt

The party should condemn him for misleading parliament, not for bias.

Oh no, another cleft stick not of the Lib Dems' making. This time it’s Labour’s call for a vote on the conduct of Jeremy Hunt.

Other political parties don’t like it much when you interfere in their internal machinations. Labour knows what this feels like – remember when Nick Clegg suggested any post-election deal with Labour probably couldn’t feature Gordon Brown? So, when David Cameron announced (with perhaps the sort of breakneck decision-making on-the-hoof that ends up in the odd U-turn) that he wouldn’t be referring Jeremy Hunt to the independent adviser on the ministerial code, it’s understandable that the Lib Dems put out a statement saying it was "a matter for the prime minister alone to decide how to handle issues of discipline concerning Conservative ministers".

But now Labour has called a vote in the Commons. And this puts us in a tricky position.

Supporting a motion condemning Hunt over bias is a tempting offer. But Saint Vince also expressed bias, albeit on the side of the angels. Surely no one now thinks Vince should have resigned, but to condemn Hunt for bias would seem a tad hypocritical. And anyway, the issue over bias isn’t really Hunt’s problem. It’s Cameron’s, for giving Hunt responsibility in the first place. He either appointed Hunt because of his views – which would be an abuse of power. Or despite of his views – which demonstrates a complete lack of judgement.

So then, do we support Hunt? Do we say everything he did is tickety boo, all fine with us?  Lord no. He’s up to his neck in this, and without any sort of inquiry, we will never get to the truth. How many times has Leveson said he won’t rule on whether the ministerial code has been broken, yet we’re told post- Leveson, Hunt has a clean bill of health. Ha, I should coco.

So do we abstain and say "none of our business"? Well, that would look good wouldn’t it. Very brave. Very decisive. Nope, that’s not an option either.

So, we’re stuck. Fortunately, there’s a way out.

While bias may not be the undoing of Hunt, there’s a second charge looming – that he misled Parliament, both regarding his alleged attempts to interfere in the process while Cable had responsibility for it, and then when he said in the House in March 2011 that he had published "all the documents relating to all the meetings, all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my department and News Corporation”.

... which I would suggest may have been a little economical with the actualité.

If we’re smart, we’ll put down an amendment to whatever motion Labour puts forward, that centres purely on misleading Parliament - a charge that may well be substantiated in the debate.

And if he’s smart, Cameron will quietly raise no objections to us supporting that amendment. If Hunt resigns over a charge of misleading parliament, that issue starts and ends at his door. If we stray into why a man who was so clearly pro-Murdoch was given quasi-judicial responsibility for the BSkyB bid in the first place, that issue lands on the doorstep of No.10.

And before that happens, Hunt will probably go.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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