The questions Hunt must answer

As he heads to the Leveson inquiry, the Culture Secretary's future hangs in the balance.

Downing Street has always insisted that Jeremy Hunt must have a chance to defend himself before the Leveson inquiry and now that day is finally here. The Culture Secretary will take the witness stand at 10am and likely remain there until 4pm. There are countless questions that he must answer but here are the three main areas of contention.

1. Improper influence?

On 25 April 2012, Hunt told parliament that he made "absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision (over the BSkyB bid) that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business". Yet following the publication of his 19 November memo to David Cameron, we now know that he told Cameron that "if we block it (the BSkyB takeover) our media sector will suffer for years" and that it would be wrong to "cave in" to opponents of the bid. Although there is no evidence that he lobbied Vince Cable directly, he was, in effect, urging Cameron to lean on the Business Secretary, who was then responsible for the bid. Hunt will struggle to reconcile this with his claim that he never sought to influence "a quasi-judicial decision".

2. Was parliament misled?

Hunt infamously told the Commons on 3 March 2011 that he was releasing "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". Yet despite his former special adviser Adam Smith acting as a point of contact with News Corporation lobbyist Frédéric Michel, none of the numerous emails between the two men were published until James Murdoch's appearance at the Leveson inquiry. Hunt, therefore, stands accused of misleading parliament, a breach of the ministerial code.

3. Complicit or incompetent?

While Hunt has conceded that his former special adviser Adam Smith behaved improperly, he has insisted that he was unaware of "the volume and tone" of Smith's contacts with News Corp. But this defence does not bear scrutiny.

On the evidence of the published emails, he was either unwilling or unable to prevent his office repeatedly leaking confidential information on the BSkyB bid to News Corp. If the former, he violated his duty to act in a quasi-judicial role: to behave impartially and set aside all political considerations. If the latter, he proved incapable of handling the biggest single task facing his department and is similarly unfit for office.

Paragraph 3.3 of the ministerial code states that "The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment. Individual ministers will be accountable to the prime minister, parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers".

Despite evidence that Hunt may have broken the ministerial code, Cameron has refused to order a probe by the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Alex Allan. Yet he has conceded that "if new evidence emerges from the Leveson Inquiry that the ministerial code has been broken, I will either seek the advice of Sir Alex Allan or take action directly."

Hunt's future will likely depend on whether any "new evidence" does emerge.

 

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt leaves his house to go to the Leveson inquiry on May 31, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.