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1 June 2012

How the Lib Dems should handle a vote on Hunt

The party should condemn him for misleading parliament, not for bias.

By Richard Morris

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.

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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.