The Lib Dems' Hunt abstention is a miserable little compromise

If Clegg wants Hunt to be referred, he should vote in favour of the motion.

Nick Clegg's decision to order Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain from today's Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt is a significant moment in the short history of the coalition. With the exception of last year's vote on a DUP motion celebrating David Cameron's EU "veto", it is the first mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government. Clegg's move was reportedly prompted by his fury at Cameron's refusal to refer Hunt to Alex Allan, the adviser on ministers' interests (the subject of the Labour motion), even after the Culture Secretary's dubious evidence to the Leveson inquiry. The Lib Dem abstention will not threaten the government's majority (although, in an indication of how seriously the Tories are taking the vote, Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson has been ordered to return from his honeymoon in Mauritius to vote) and the motion is, in any case, non-binding. But the act is rich with political symbolism. Confronted by Cameron's repeated failure to hold Hunt to account, the Lib Dems have reasserted their independence.

The Tories are still downplaying the significance of the move, with one aide noting that it is "a party political motion not government business". On the Today programme this morning, housing minister Grant Shapps said it was simply "a reminder that we have different perspectives on things." Conservative backbenchers, however, are proving less understanding and have already warned Clegg not to count on their support the next time that scandal befalls a Lib Dem cabinet minister (as it frequently does). One Tory MP described the move as "an act of war".

Labour will welcome another opportunity to exploit coalition discontent but many of the party's MPs will rightly denounce this as another "miserable little compromise" by Clegg. If the Lib Dems believe that Hunt should be referred to Allan, then they should simply vote in favour of the motion, not abstain. Once again, Clegg has said one thing (refer Hunt) and done another (abstained), the problem that has long dogged his leadership.

The defence proffered by his office is that he did not want to support a party (Labour) with a history of "cosy" relations with the Murdochs - the Lib Dems are proud of their status as the one major party never to fall under the spell of the Wizard of Oz. But this backwards-looking defence does not bear scrutiny. Labour is now led by a man who has repeatedly apologised for his failure to intervene earlier over phone-hacking and who led the charge against News International last summer. Another explanation put forward this morning is that the Lib Dems cannot vote with a party that "lied about" the Iraq war. Again, this defence makes no sense when one considers Miliband's early opposition to the war.

From a political perspective, Clegg's decision to abstain is the worst of all possible worlds. He will earn the ire of the Tories, whilst receiving no compensatory support from Labour. In the meantime, attention moves to the Leveson inquiry, where one Nicholas William Peter Clegg is appearing from 10am.

Nick Clegg has ordered Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on today's Commons vote on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Gordon Brown contemplated making Alastair Campbell a minister

The move is revealed in Ed Balls' new book.

Gordon Brown contemplated making Alastair Campbell, a sports minister. Campbell had served as Tony Blair’s press chief from 1994 to 2003, Ed Balls has revealed.

Although the move fell through, Campbell would have been one of a number of high-profile ministerial appointments, usually through the Lords, made by Brown during his tenure at 10 Downing Street.

Other unusual appointments included the so-called “Goats” appointed in 2007, part of what Brown dubbed “the government of all the talents”, in which Ara Darzi, a respected surgeon, Mark Malloch-Brown, formerly a United Nations diplomat,  Alan West, a former admiral, Paul Myners, a  successful businessman, and Digby Jones, former director-general of the CBI, took ministerial posts and seats in the Lords. While Darzi, West and Myners were seen as successes on Whitehall, Jones quit the government after a year and became a vocal critic of both Brown’s successors as Labour leader, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

The story is revealed in Ed Balls’ new book, Speaking Out, a record of his time as a backroom adviser and later Cabinet and shadow cabinet minister until the loss of his seat in May 2015. It is published 6 September.