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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Commons Confidential: Herod in the House

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The spell cast over Theresa May by the youthful Gavin Williamson and Cronus, his pet tarantula, leaves envious Tory rivals accusing him of plotting to succeed the Stand-In Prime Minister. The wily Chief Whip is eyed suspiciously as a baby-faced assassin waiting to pounce.

My tearoom snout whispers that May is more dependent on the fresh-faced schemer (he also served as David Cameron’s PPS) who signed a survival deal bunging the DUP £1bn protection money than she is on David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd or Boris Johnson. She delegated the reshuffle’s middle and lower ranks to Williamson, but his nous is questioned after he appointed Pudsey’s Stuart Andrew (majority: 331) and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker (609) as henchmen. Vulnerable seats are dangerously unprotected when whips don’t speak in the House of Commons.

Left-wing Labour MPs mutter that Jeremy Corbyn is implementing a “King Herod strategy” to prevent the birth of rival messiahs. A former shadow cabinet member insisted that any display of ambition would be fatal. The punishment snubbings of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who had expressed a willingness to serve, were intended to intimidate others into obedience. The assertion was reinforced by an influential apparatchik musing: “John [McDonnell] is looking for a bag carrier, so Chuka could apply for that.” The election has laced the boot tightly on the left foot.

The military career of Barnsley’s Major Dan Jarvis included service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps old acquaintances will be renewed with the allocation to Sinn Fein’s seven MPs of a meeting room next to the Labour squaddie’s office.

Ian Lavery, the burly ex-miner appointed as Labour’s new chair by Jeremy Corbyn, disclosed that he was bombarded with messages urging him to “nut” – that is, headbutt – Boris Johnson when he faced down the Foreign Secretary on TV during the election. I suspect that even Trembling BoJo’s money would be on the Ashington lad in a class war with the Old Etonian.

Campaign tales continue to be swapped. Labour’s victorious Sharon Hodgson helped a family put up a tent. The defeated Lib Dem Sarah Olney was heckled through a letter box by a senior Labour adviser’s five-year-old son: “What’s that silly woman saying? Vote Labour!” Oddest of all was the Tory minister James Wharton informing his opponent Paul Williams that he’d put in a good word for him with Labour HQ. There was no need – Williams won.

The Tory injustice minister Dominic Raab is advertising for an unpaid Westminster “volunteer”, covering only “commuting expenses”. Does he expect them to eat at food banks?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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