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5 June 2012

Cameron steps up action against Warsi – but not Hunt

How much longer can the PM maintain this blatant double standard?

By Samira Shackle

It has not been a good bank holiday weekend for Sayeeda Warsi. The charges against the Conservative Party chairman have escalated, and now David Cameron has referred the case to Sir Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministers’ interests. Allan will consider whether Warsi has broken the ministerial code.

The referral came after Warsi wrote to the Prime Minister admitting that she did not tell civil servants that she and her husband’s second cousin, Abid Hussain, were both shareholders in a spice manufacturing firm when they visited Pakistan together on government business. This is a serious blow, and could lead to a long investigation. Warsi already faces a Lords’ inquiry and a possible police inquiry into her expenses (my colleague George Eaton has a detailed outline of the accusations against Warsi here).

Warsi does not, at present, appear to have many supporters within her own party, although Louise Mensch told the Today programme this morning that the charges against her were “very minor”.

What is really very striking is the contrast to the treatment of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, who Cameron has repeatedly refused to refer over allegations that he broke the ministerial code three times while overseeing the defunct BSkyB bid. As the level of contact between Hunt and James Murdoch became apparent last week, Cameron remained steadfast, telling the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that what Hunt said privately or publicly about the bid was irrelevant:

How he gave himself, in the words of the Permanent Secretary, a ‘vanishingly small room to manoeuvre’ in terms of how he ran that bid process, and he ran it very well and I think reached the right conclusions.

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It is mind-boggling that the Prime Minister has maintained this position. Indeed, even Hunt’s last manoeuvre to stay in the job – namely, blaming his special adviser Adam Smith for inappropriate levels of contact with News Corp – is a breach of the code, which states that ministers should be responsible for the conduct of their special advisers.

Although the thorough investigation of Warsi may be an attempt to deflect attention, and a reflection of the fact that there have separately been grumblings of discontent about her competence, this looks like plain and simple hypocrisy. The Labour MP Michael Dugher phrased it well:

David Cameron’s actions in this case draw into sharp relief his refusal to hold a similar investigation into Jeremy Hunt … Cameron is bending over backwards to defend Jeremy Hunt because he knows that it is his own judgment, in appointing a man he knew to be biased to oversee the BSkyB bid, that is in question.

How much longer can this be maintained?