Nick is right on Jeremy Hunt: this is a Tory failure to self-regulate, so let them stew

by Stephen Tall on June 13, 2012

Should the Lib Dems join forces with Labour and vote to censure Jeremy Hunt? That’s the question troubling my party today. When the Lib Dems were in opposition this would’ve been a no-brainer — in fact, we’d probably have tabled the Commons motion, perhaps also pointing out Labour’s near-equal culpability in entrenching the fading Murdoch Empire.

But we’re not in opposition now, we’re in government. Like it or not, that changes the Lib Dem considerations. And this is my 3-point hierarchical list of considerations:

    1. David Cameron should have referred Jeremy Hunt to the independent adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan. The appointment, accountability and dismissal of Tory cabinet members is a matter entirely for the Prime Minister.

    2. Jeremy Hunt, when David Cameron failed in his duty, should have taken the smart and proper approach, and referred himself to clear his name and reputation. Even if he survives today’s Commons motion, it’s hard to see him surviving much past the Olympics in the cabinet.

    3. The failure of the Tories to self-regulate their own ministers should not overly concern the Lib Dems. This is a Tory problem, not a Lib Dem problem. If the Tories want to give themselves ample rope to tie themselves in knots, we should as good liberals allow them such freedom.

‘But doesn’t abstaining make us just as bad as the Tories?’ my colleagues anxiously ask. No, it doesn’t. Just as the Tory decision to cut the top-rate tax from 50p to 45p — didn’t that work out well for them? — was not a Lib Dem priority, neither is the fate of Jeremy Hunt. We should conserve our energies and furrowed brows for issues that matter to folk beyond SW1.

In any case, let’s just imagine the Lib Dems did vote with Labour today. What would happen? Nothing. David Cameron would still not refer Jeremy Hunt to Sir Alex Allan. I don’t see the point of the Lib Dems spending political capital best saved for the policy fights to come on trying to do the Tories a good turn by saving them from themselves.

And if by some miracle Jeremy Hunt was forced to resign as a result of the Lib Dems voting with Labour — well, Mr Hunt would enjoy martyred status among his colleagues (‘the Tory brought down by Lib Dem opportunism’), and he’d simply be replaced by another Conservative. Sorry if I fail to get overly excited by that prospect.

There’s an American management expression that refers to “the monkey on your back”. In essence it means not allowing those you work with to dump their problems with you, and walk away from them. I see no reason for Nick Clegg to accept the monkey that is Jeremy Hunt from off David Cameron’s back. “Make sure that subordinates leave your office with the monkeys that they brought in!” goes the advice. I’m glad Nick’s following it.