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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.