George Osborne is under increasing pressure to appear in person at the Leveson Inquiry following the disclosure of further evidence of his close links to the Murdoch empire.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has so far only been asked to provide written evidence to the press standards inquiry but the likelihood that he will be asked to give live evidence increased yesterday when it emerged that he entertained Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson at his official residence prior to News Corp’s £8bn bid for BSkyB.
The weekend in 2010 at Mr Osborne’s grace and favour residence, Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire, was detailed in Mr Coulson’s written statement published after the former Downing Street communications director gave evidence to Lord Justice Leveson last week.
The social gathering, which took place when Mr Coulson was working for David Cameron, took place while Rupert Murdoch and his executives were preparing their proposed takeover of BSkyB. It emerged during evidence from Mrs Brooks on Friday that she was tipped off that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was to make an “extremely helpful” statement during the bid process.
A source close to the Leveson Inquiry said yesterday that those witnesses who had been asked to provide statements could be required to provide oral evidence at any stage even if they have not be called so far.
The source said: “Everyone has seen the evidence which has been given in the past couple of days. It is quite possible that someone who has made a statement could be called to evidence in person.”
Aides to Mr Osborne said he would be happy to appear at the inquiry if asked. The Chancellor is alone among eight Cabinet ministers, including Mr Cameron and Mr Hunt, in so far not being asked to give evidence in person.
If he does now enter the witness box, he can expect to be questioned closely about his links with the Murdoch empire. Mr Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, last week dismissed as “ridiculous” any suggestion that he gave Mr Osborne favourable treatment in a story which showed him with his arm around a dominatrix in front of an alleged line of cocaine.
The Chancellor was instrumental in the decision to recruit Mr Coulson to Conservative Central Office after the NOTW editor resigned over the phone hacking scandal in January 2007.
Labour MP Chris Bryant yesterday claimed a criminal offence may have been committed if News Corp was handed information about the BSkyB bid process by Mr Hunt’s office. The shadow immigration minister told the BBC’s Sunday Politics show: “News [Corp] knew information about what the Secretary of State was going to say before he said it, and also before commercial operators did. That’s a criminal offence, a straight-forward criminal offence.”
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said Mr Hunt would answer the allegations about his conduct when he appears before Leveson, expected later this month.