Hunt out to dry? Clegg refuses to back Tory culture secretary as Lib Dem MPs push inquiry

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2012

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is piling the pressure on Jeremy Hunt, whose closeness to the Murdoch empire has been embarrassingly laid bare by the Leveson Inquiry in the past few weeks, by refusing to endorse David Cameron’s decision not to refer his culture secretary to the official adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan. Here’s how The Observer is reporting it:

Nick Clegg refuses to back Jeremy Hunt as Lib Dems demand investigation

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, has refused to give unequivocal backing to Jeremy Hunt over his handling of the BSkyB takeover controversy as senior Liberal Democrats broke ranks to demand a new investigation into whether the culture secretary has broken the ministerial code. …

Labour will call a Commons vote on whether Hunt should be investigated, claiming he misled parliament about his role in News Corp’s bid for BSkyB and failed to keep his adviser Adam Smith, who quit over his contacts with Murdoch executives, under control. A Lib Dem spokesman refused to say whether Clegg would order his MPs to back Cameron. “No decision has been taken,” he said. …

Pressure on Clegg to take on Cameron was applied by several Lib Dems, including the party’s representative on the culture, media and sport select committee, Adrian Sanders. Sanders said he thought the case should “definitely” be referred for investigation. “The public will accept the verdict from the person who is supposed to investigate these issues far more readily that it will the verdict of the prime minister,” he added. “What is the point of having an adviser on the ministerial code if you never use him?”

Lorely Burt, the Lib Dem MP for Solihull, said Hunt should have offered himself up for investigation. “I thought he should have referred himself, quite honestly, but he has lost that opportunity.” Other senior Lib Dems said they were “astonished” that the prime minister had not referred Hunt to Allan.

There’s no doubt such a Lib Dem move would irritate the party’s Coalition partners, the Conservatives. Equally, many Lib Dems are frustrated that the party has been unable to make much clearer publicly that it was the Tories and Labour who happily cosied up to News International while the Lib Dems maintained a proper distance.

Reports indicate the Lib Dems are attracted to the idea of tabling an amendment to Labour’s Commons motion centering on “the specific allegation that Hunt misled parliament when he claimed in a statement in April to have published all his communications with News Corp and the Murdochs.” Indeed this proposal was floated by Lib Dem blogger Richard Morris in the New Statesman on Friday, who noted:

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.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.