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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496