Cameron has 'torn up rules' to keep Hunt

Labour accuses PM over ministerial code and says it will force vote in the Commons

Labour accused the Prime Minister of "tearing up" the ministerial code by backing Jeremy Hunt – and pledged yesterday to force a Commons vote over the beleaguered Culture Secretary's handling of Rupert Murdoch's bid for BSkyB.

Dismissing Downing Street's almost-instant statement of support for Mr Hunt following his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Thursday, Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, challenged the all-clear given by David Cameron, maintaining the Culture Secretary had "evidently" misled Parliament and should resign.

In an interview with the BBC, Mrs Harman said that the PM's decision not to refer the bid's handling to Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on the ministerial code, was, "sweeping the whole thing under the carpet".

She was echoing a widespread belief on the opposition benches that Mr Hunt had twice misled the Commons and that his job was still on the line.

Senior Labour figures believe that regardless of Mr Cameron's public show of support, the "hunt for Hunt is not over" as one MP described it.

Key to their optimism is the now likely personal appearance of the Chancellor, George Osborne, at the Leveson Inquiry within the next fortnight. This may take place in the same week the Prime Minister is questioned.

The Culture Secretary previously told the Commons that "all the exchanges" between his department and News Corp had been published and that he had not interfered in the bid process before taking over responsibility for the BSkyB judgement from the Business Secretary, Vince Cable.

The content of emails and text exchanges revealed to Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry suggested that assurance was not entirely accurate.

New evidence revealed that Mr Hunt texted the former News International chairman James Murdoch only hours before he took over from Dr Cable. He offered his congratulations on the European Commission's decision not to object to the Murdoch takeover bid. Hunt's text read: "Great. Congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go!"

Once Hunt's department had been handed the quasi-judicial role in judging the bid's acceptability, contact with James Murdoch continued.

Ms Harman told the BBC that the Leveson evidence showed Mr Hunt had breached the rules governing minister's conduct, saying: "As far as David Cameron is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for his secretary of state to break the rules. But actually the ministerial code is important. It is not acceptable to us that these rules have been broken. So we are going to call a vote in the House of Commons."

She reminded Mr Cameron that when he came to power he had emphasised the importance of maintaining standards in public office and had upgraded the code's authority. By backing Mr Hunt, "he has just torn it up," she claimed. Labour is expected to use an opposition day debate on 14 June to attempt force a vote on Mr Hunt's conduct.

Ministerial code: The breaches

* Liam Fox

Resigned as Defence Secretary last year after it was established that his relationship with Adam Werritty, who had no official position but promoted himself as an adviser to Mr Fox and attended Ministry of Defence meetings with him, had been in breach of the code.

* Peter Hain

In 2006, the then Northern Ireland Secretary was found by Mr Justice Girvan in Belfast to have breached the terms of the ministerial code by appointing Bertha McDougall, the widow of a police officer murdered by republican terrorists, as a commissioner for the families of victims of The Troubles. The judge ruled that the appointment had been motivated by an "improper political purpose". Mr Hain continued in his post until 2007, when he became Work and Pensions Secretary.

Comments