Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hunt and BSkyB: What is Labour up to? And what is Cameron hiding?

How to tell a Minister is damaged
Respected political journalist Martin Bright has some tough words about Jeremy Hunt's appearance in front of the Leveson Inquiry.
"Has there ever been such a woeful performance at a public inquiry...?"
"There has rarely been a frontline politician as vain and primping as the Culture Secretary..."
"... smug, grinning complacency..."
"... Hunt has become an icon for the loathsome arrogance that could spell the end of [this] government."
"... Our democracy is diminished by his presence."
Even the headline "What a cowardly Hunt" calls to mind James Naughtie's unfortunate spoonerism when talking about "jeremy Hunt, the Culture secretary".

Now it's true that I recently used the term "Cnuts" to refer to the climate change deniers trying to make it illegal for the sea to rise in North Carolina. But I was legitimately invoking the well-known but possibly apocryphal story about the 11th century king of Denmark, England and Norway commanding the tide to halt.

Nevertheless, aside from Bright's personal loathing for the Minister, the post makes a single specific allegation:

"It is now beyond question that Jeremy Hunt was batting for the Murdochs."

Having listened carefully to the questioning of Hunt at this week's hearing, I don't think this is "beyond question" at all.

It's clear that Hunt wanted the News Corp bid for BSkyB to succeed: Hunt's views on this were well-known before he was given his "quasi-judicial role" in the matter.

But whether Hunt was biased in his decision-making, and whether News Corp received information from Hunt's office that it shouldn't have done, are not proven on the basis of the evidence we have heard so far.

Nor, for that matter, is it proven that Hunt was culpable in the appointment or management of his Special Adviser, or that Hunt misled Parliament.

Yet Labour continue to make all these claims. Why is that?

In one view, Labour has mishandled the attack on Hunt. The smart thing to do would have been not to angrily assert these claims and demand Hunt's resignation, but to keep asking the questions: Was Hunt biased? What information did News Corp receive? How was Adam Smith managed? etc. This keeps the pressure on the Government, aligns Labour with the news media's agenda in finding out the truth, and highlights that Leveson doesn't have the remit to answer these kinds of questions.

Instead, angry assertion and demands for resignation reach high pressure quickly, but then have nowhere to go in the absence of new allegations. You can only get so angry on such an issue. Repeatedly calling for resignation has diminishing impact. Dissipation of pressure is inevitable.

However, there's an alternative view of Labour's strategy here: It's that actually Labour want Hunt to remain in office for as long as possible, wounded and continuing to damage the Government day-by-day by embodying Labour's charge that the Government is out-of-touch, lying and corruptly favouring its friends in big business. On this account, Labour's style of attack is a clever way to drag out the drama.

What's more, with Cameron defending a position of not referring Hunt to Sir Alex Allan, the government's independent adviser on the ministerial code, it's now almost inevitable that Labour will table a motion in the Commons that Hunt should be referred. And this will put the Liberal Democrats in a quandary about how to vote. For such a motion could only pass with Liberal Democrat support.

And of course every fibre of a Liberal Democrat's sinew is likely to be screaming that a referral is the proper course of action: due process, independent, fair, transparent, holding politicians to the highest standards, and so on. There is no doubt LibDems would be supporting such a motion if they were in opposition.

But it's not at all clear that LibDem Ministers can vote for such a Labour motion without causing a crisis for collective responsibility within the Coalition. Moreover, Cameron can quite rightly point to how he kept Vince Cable within the Cabinet for the sake of the Coalition, when Cameron had the grounds and motivation to sack him over the BSkyB bid. Now, Cameron would say, Clegg needs to repay the favour and show loyalty to the Coalition. And even if LibDem Ministers vote against, Conservatives would see LibDem backbenchers voting for Labour's motion as a clear demonstration of breach of faith, and the knives would be out.

So if you wondered why Hunt so preoccupies Labour when they could be focusing on the cuts to public services, that's your answer. Hunt's continuing presence in the Cabinet helps Labour's narrative about an "out-of-touch Government" and about LibDems "sacrificing their principles to prop up the Tories".

In that case, what's stopping Cameron referring Hunt to the independent adviser on the ministerial code? After all, from the outside, that looks to be the easiest option for Cameron. OK, so initially Cameron said he wanted to wait until Hunt gave evidence at Leveson, and when that happened he said no; therefore referring Hunt now would look like weakness. But that's easily got round by Hunt asking Cameron to refer him anyway, in the interests of clearing the air: the request coming from Hunt allows Cameron to act without losing face.

But why say no at all? What's the problem?

It seems to me that Cameron has so far refused to refer Hunt for one of three reasons:

1. Cameron believes Hunt is innocent of the charges. Cameron is loyal to those who are loyal to him. And if Labour get their way on this, the media will taste blood, and Cameron's authority will be damaged.

2. Hunt is a useful lightening rod, protecting Cameron from criticism because of his close relations with Coulson and Brooks.

3. There is some unknown fact, yet to come out, that somehow implicates Cameron in improper behaviour in relation to the bid, but that would likely come out of an inquiry into breaches of the ministerial code over the bid.

In relation to (1), I think the chances of Cameron's authority being diminished more by the act of a referral than by the continuing rejection of an inquiry are small. And I'm sure Cameron must know this, and has a well-honed sense of self-preservation that would overcome the feelings of hurt pride or unfairness that a referral would engender.

(2) is not strong either. The facts about Cameron's connections with Coulson and Brooks are already known. Heat on Hunt does not change those facts.

But (3) is interesting.

I'm reminded of Cameron's body language at a particular moment in the debate following Hunt's statement to the House of Commons on 25 April. The video is here, starting at 13:12:50, Hansard HC Deb, 25 April 2012, c965.

David Rutley, the Conservative MP for Macclesfield asks:
"Will my right honourable Friend confirm to the House that the process he describes was authorised and approved not just by the Cabinet Secretary but by the Permanent Secretary at the DCMS?"
I doubt it was intentional, but this is actually a trickier question than it seems. At this point in the debate, Hunt has not said that the Cabinet Secretary has "authorised and approved" the process.

Hunt has earlier said:
"... when I was appointed to be responsible for the bid, my views about the bid, some of which had been made public, were explicitly reported to the Cabinet Secretary, who decided that it was appropriate for me to take responsibility for it in a quasi-judicial role..."
He has also said that the role of Hunt's Special Adviser was agreed by the Permanent Secretary, but (at this stage in the debate) nothing beyond that.

Hunt replies to Rutley:
"I can confirm that the permanent secretary was closely involved in this very important decision at every stage of the process. In particular, he gave me strong advice about how to ensure that the process was handled objectively and fairly and was seen to be handled objectively and fairly."
It's slightly odd that Hunt doesn't confirm at this point that the Permanent Secretary authorised and approved the process, because later on in the debate Hunt goes on to say that "we set up a process that was approved by the Permanent Secretary". But maybe that's not significant. Hunt appears to be choosing his words particularly carefully in this answer, but stumbles over the word "involved". Is he searching for a strong way to express the importance of the role of the Permanent Secretary in influencing the design and conduct of the process, and decides that "closely involved" is more emphatic than "authorised and approved"? It isn't to backbenchers, judging by the way they return to this point in later questioning. I suspect that in Hunt's eyes, it's not just that the Permanent Secretary approved of arrangements that Hunt made, it's that the Permanent Secretary helped make those arrangements.

However Hunt very noticeably doesn't confirm in his answer that the Cabinet Secretary authorised and approved the process. That's not particularly surprising: the matter of Hunt's suitability for the role is clearly a matter for the Cabinet Secretary, everything else to do with the process would typically be a matter for the Permanent Secretary.

But Cameron's body language during this answer is unusual. First he stares up into the distance, as if thinking back to something.

Then he stares up intently to where Rutley is sitting.

His eyes move back to staring into the distance. And then he sticks out his chin, strokes it and scratches it.

And finally, he puts his chin down and protects his throat, as if threatened.

And then he lowers his chin even more.

The camera does not show him displaying such behaviour at any other moment during the debate.

I might be wrong, but if I had to guess about the nature of "some unknown fact, yet to come out, that somehow implicates Cameron", I'd suggest it has something to do with the Cabinet Secretary.

For me, the key questions remaining after Hunt's testimony are:
  1. Why was a Special Advisor the point of contact between DCMS and News Corp?
  2. Was any information passed inappropriately to News Corp?
  3. Did Hunt mislead the House of Commons over his contacts?
These are not primarily matters for Leveson, and in my view an inquiry is needed. If Cameron refuses to refer Hunt to the independent advisor on the ministerial code, the DCMS Select Committee should initiate its own inquiry. And call the Cabinet Secretary to give evidence.


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