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

Photo: Getty
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The Secret Civil Servant: Let’s hope cabinet followed the civil service formula on Brexit away day

 Though it’s probably best if they skipped the trust exercises.

It’s enough to make your blood run cold. 

“And before we get started, I want everyone to take a post-it note, and I want everyone to write down what they personally want to achieve from this away day. When you’ve done that, please come and stick them on this whiteboard for discussion.” 

Every Civil Service Away Day adheres to a very strict formula. And regardless of how categorically useless it was, afterwards everyone is duty bound to say what a roaring success it was and what a lovely day they’ve had, just like the couple who have narrowly missed out on the speedboat on Bullseye. 

The talk around the cabinet Brexit away day suggests they stuck to this winning format, subject to a bit of fine tuning.

To start with, there will be the obligatory ice breakers, which nobody has ever enjoyed. Considering the various tensions, it’s probably best if the cabinet skip the trust exercises or Chequers will end up looking like a dressing station at Rorke’s Drift.

It is important to remember that anybody doing anything at an away day is automatically granted the title “facilitator”, and everything they do on the day, no matter how mundane, is an act of “facilitation”. It’s not clear who was given this job for the cabinet, but I imagine it was probably Gavin Barwell. 

There will then be an introductory address by the Big Boss. This will focus on strategy, ideally containing little or no actual substance. That will pose few problems to this administration. No doubt the ambition will be somewhat greater, with whole conversations without discernible content whatsoever, just a mixture of non alphabetic sounds, semaphore and exhalation all carefully minuted by a mime artist.

A question and answer session will usually follow, when the most ambitious members of staff will try and ask the most tediously self aware question, to raise their profile. The worst are usually young career focussed men, who may even introduce themselves before embarking on their question. 

I like to call these people, “wankers”. 

This, however, can be occasionally fraught with danger: at a recent departmental away day, a system had been set up so that participants could submit questions which would appear on a screen beside the panel. What they hadn’t realised was that questions could be submitted using any name they wished. By the time Sir Anthony Hopkins asked for the fourth time which was Sir Tim Barrow’s favourite Spice Girl, the chair couldn’t bring the session to a close quick enough. 

It’s unlikely the PM will hold such a session, lest she have to tell a number of cabinet ministers to facilitate off for repeatedly asking if they can be Prime Minister.

After that, the day will be split up into breakout sessions. These will be themed and are usually split by interest such as policy vs strategy, or delivery vs implementation. Ideally these will make no sense, go on too long, and be led by a really evangelical individual who while technically speaking English, will be a real struggle unless you’re up to speed on your reputational dispositives. That should work just fine at Chequers. As with civil servants, I imagine there are a number of ways to split the cabinet's attendees. Plotters vs The Deluded could work neatly, or perhaps  Cake vs Eat it.

The cabinet's away day was rumoured to include a separate session led by various ambassadors and experts on EU member states. I’m sure we can all agree,  increased cabinet-level understanding of European perspectives will come in very, very handy once we activate Article 50.

Then it’ll all have been done for another year. Time to make a quick getaway to the pub for the obligatory post away day drink, otherwise Gavin Barwell will lose the deposit he paid on that function room at The Jolly Taxpayer. 

Let’s hope some consensus is reached. Early reports already suggest it was a roaring success. I’m not holding my breath. There were rumours that the meeting wouldn’t be allowed to conclude until key agreements had been reached, a bit like a governmental equivalent of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome. What with David Davis’s reference earlier this week, it’s good to see that the franchise has finally become recognised as a significant political blueprint. 

Regardless of the decisions that are or aren’t reached this week at Chequers, it’s unlikely that when Jim Barnier shows us the mystery prize, it’s going to be a bespoke free trade agreement with all the trimmings. Commiserations, Prime Minister. Let’s see what you could’ve won. 

It doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a lovely day. 

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Gavin Barwell probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.