Steve Richards: What did Jeremy Hunt know?


Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a frenzy that raises big questions for a Prime Minister, take a close look at the subsequent answers. Since the Jeremy Hunt saga erupted a week ago David Cameron has answered one explosive question unambiguously. He could not have been clearer. But its absolute clarity makes the gaps, the fuzzy non-answers, all the more gaping.

In the Commons yesterday afternoon Cameron repeated what he had declared the day before in his interview with Andrew Marr: there was no pre-election deal with Rupert Murdoch in which News International titles endorsed the Conservatives in return for the go-ahead on BSkyB. I never believed such a crude bargain was struck, but the deadly allegation has surfaced from the foggy maze of recent days and would be fatal for Cameron if it were true. Evidently it is not. Murdoch denied such a claim on oath. Cameron has done so in the Commons.

Cameron is very straight and open about his pre-election wooing of newspapers. He sought the endorsement of as many as he could. This is no crime. Indeed it is part of the job description for a party leader. There is an entirely separate question about what he said in opposition in order to get broad editorial support, the claims to be green, the pledge not to overhaul the NHS and all the rest of it. The gap between what was said then and is happening now is even more gaping than the holes that remain in the Hunt saga. But that is for voters to reflect on as the next election moves into view. There was nothing wrong in wooing the media and we should not forget that before the Milly Dowler revelations Ed Miliband headed for Murdoch's summer party in the hope that at least his newspapers would give him a fair hearing. That was understandable too. Few voters watch politics in the raw. They rely on the media to mediate. Not surprisingly leaders seek the best possible coverage and always have done. On the deadly charge that Cameron offered to fix it for Murdoch in advance of the election, the Prime Minister is in the clear.

But this is not the essence of the charge that erupted last week with the publication of the emails and texts between News International and Hunt's office. As Hercules Poirot might have said "Mon ami, we have the answer to the wrong question". The material published a week ago pointed to an astonishing level of co-operation between Hunt's former adviser and News International over the BSkyB deal. Admittedly the adviser, a previously cautious figure who apparently hit a reckless streak, has resigned. But we have seen no definitive evidence that Hunt was unaware of what his adviser was up to.

Whenever a cabinet minister is in difficulty there is a frenzied meeting in No 10 about how best to escape the frenzy. Normally if a decision is made to attempt to save a minister all the evidence in his or her defence is made available. In this case we are asked to believe that both Prime Minister and Culture Secretary took the decision to keep everyone waiting, knowing suspicions would intensify and the frenzy not abate, until Leveson turned his gaze onto the issue. Perhaps such unprecedented altruistic nobility informed the strategy.

There is an alternative explanation, that both PM and Culture Secretary are playing for time because out there, in the form of the former special adviser's own more detailed recollections or other material, the evidence is not as unambiguously in favour of Hunt as it needs to be for a quick conclusion.

This whole saga may seem like a Westminster beltway story, but that lazy cliché, easily applied to most issues, undermines its significance. The questions are much more than about the integrity of Cameron and Hunt. The multi-layered saga also raises issues about accountability. Who is accountable to whom? Whenever the answer to this pivotal question is fuzzy in any institution, elected or otherwise, there is usually big trouble ahead.

In the Hunt saga the question relates at its broadest to the centrality of the House of Commons, our only elected national chamber supposedly on hand to hold the Government to account. Cameron was happy to appear on Andrew Marr to give his version of events, but was furious when called toaccount to the Commons. But for all his daunting talents not a single voter elected Andrew Marr. No doubt Marr is accountable to an army of BBC managers, but no one elected them either.

The Speaker, John Bercow, was not biased against the Conservatives in calling Cameron to put his case in the Commons yesterday. He was biased in favour of the Commons and that means he is biased in favour of the electorate who vote for MPs of any party. Bercow was brave and right to make the elected chamber the forum for scrutiny over an unresolved issue. Ultimately prime ministers are accountable to the Commons, not the BBC or newspapers, especially in a hung parliament when Cameron does not necessarily command majority support in relation to Hunt. Some senior Lib Dems wonder aloud whether Hunt has broken the ministerial code and should be investigated by the relevant civil servant.

The Leveson Inquiry is an event of historic significance, but it too has a single line of accountability. It reports to the Government. No one elected Lord Leveson. The Government has set him a broad remit. Already it is a forum for revelation, some forensic questioning, moments of theatre and important insights into an industry that was out of control and had power without any tangible form of accountability. But Leveson cannot judge on the relationship between a cabinet minister and his special adviser. The fact that the relationship in question is between the Culture Secretary and his adviser is a coincidence. The judgement is about whether a special adviser has acted wholly independently of the minister. That relates to the ministerial code and a senior civil servant stands ready to declare. It would only take a day or two.

This is not going to happen. Hunt will appear before Leveson in a few weeks and then Cameron will decide whether or not his cabinet minister can survive. We know how and when the mystery will end, but not yet what form the end will take.