Hunt on borrowed time as Whitehall digs in

Minister fights to save his job as questions mount up

Jeremy Hunt was under mounting pressure last night after his most senior civil servant appeared to undermine the Culture Secretary's version of events surrounding the secret briefing of News Corp during its attempted £8 billion takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, refused 10 times to confirm that he "agreed" to let Mr Hunt's special adviser, Adam Smith, speak to Rupert Murdoch executives about the deal – as Mr Hunt claimed in Parliament as he battled to keep his job. The revelation adds to Labour Party suspicions that Mr Hunt may have overruled his Permanent Secretary to insist on a role for Mr Smith, who on Wednesday resigned over the affair, in the takeover talks. Mr Stephens repeatedly dodged the questions from MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee, to their clear irritation.

Last night, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport issued a statement saying Mr Stephens was "aware" of the arrangement and was "content" with it – but the statement did not explicitly say he had agreed to it or authorised it.

In a further day of dramatic developments, it also emerged that:

* Downing Street has gone to extraordinary efforts behind the scenes to prevent an independent inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke ministerial codes of conduct. The Cabinet Secretary made a private telephone call to Lord Justice Leveson within hours of the scandal breaking on Tuesday to lobby for Mr Hunt's case to be heard as part of the inquiry, allowing Mr Hunt to avoid facing an investigation into whether he has broken the ministerial code of conduct;

* The broadcasting regulator Ofcom has escalated its inquiry into whether BSkyB is a "fit and proper" owner of a broadcasting licence. Ofcom has asked for documentary evidence relating to the phone-hacking scandal and could force Mr Murdoch to sell his existing stake in BSkyB. The Financial Services Authority is already considering an investigation into the alleged leaking of financially sensitive information;

* Rupert Murdoch was accused by the News of the World's lawyer Tom Crone of making a "shameful lie" in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. Mr Murdoch had suggested that Mr Crone was involved in hiding the extent of the hacking scandal from senior executives.

In an attempt to increase pressure on the Government, Labour wrote to Mr Stephens last night asking the Permanent Secretary to confirm in writing that he "knew in advance" that Mr Smith was to be a contact point with News Corp, and also to confirm that he had approved the arrangement in advance.

The deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, also called for the publication of all text messages, emails and phone records between Mr Smith and the News Corp lobbyist Fréd Michel relating to the BSkyB bid, and called for an inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke the Ministerial Code.

She also demanded the publication of messages between Mr Hunt and his special adviser Mr Smith. Sources who know both men told The Independent they found it "inconceivable" that Mr Smith would have acted without Mr Hunt's explicit authorisation in his dealings with Mr Michel.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, had privately contacted Lord Justice Leveson on Tuesday to say the Government would like Mr Hunt's case to be heard as part of his inquiry. This triggered accusations that the Government's most senior civil servant had tried to interfere with the inquiry.

No 10 was forced to admit that the Leveson Inquiry had no remit to rule on whether Mr Hunt broke the code, or to make recommendations on whether he should remain in office. Downing Street also refused to give any undertaking to voluntarily supply the inquiry with all emails, text messages and calls between Mr Hunt and Mr Smith relating to the BSkyB takeover.

The senior Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Public Administration Committee, suggested he was unhappy with the Government's handling of the situation when he said the Prime Minister's independent adviser on the Ministerial Code, Sir Alex Allan, should conduct "swift preliminary enquiries" to see if the Culture Secretary had a case to answer. Mr Jenkin said: "I think it is extraordinary that any special adviser should have anything at all to do with a Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role in a matter such as a takeover bid and whether to refer that takeover bid."

Later in the day, the department tried to clarify Mr Stephens's stonewalling and failure to provide a clear answer to MPs. It said in a statement: "The Permanent Secretary did not feel it was appropriate to provide further information ahead of the department's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. As Jeremy Hunt's statement yesterday made clear, the Permanent Secretary was aware that Adam Smith was amongst a small number of individuals in the department who were in contact with News Corp and was content with that arrangement."

David Cameron's official spokesman said the Prime Minister still had no intention of asking Sir Alex to launch an investigation into the Culture Secretary's conduct. "He has not done," said the spokesman, adding: "He has no plans to do so."

The spokesman added: "The Prime Minister has made very clear that he believes the Secretary of State acted properly. There is an inquiry ongoing that is looking at some of these issues and we should let that inquiry take its course."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes calls for Hunt inquiry

New evidence emerges that Osborne was lobbied by Murdoch

Panic, cover-up and a 'shameful lie': Muroch's final outing with Leveson

News Corp offered Gove £2m to build 'free school'

Ian Burrell: At long last the watchdog is off the leash - and on the scent

Oliver Wright: Now we know the power of the cosy chat

Hayley Barlow: Betrayed by a belligerent old man on the brink

The Sketch: It's Rupert versus those effete Le Monde-loving lawyers

Leading article: The net is closing around the Culture Secretary

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

SEN Learning Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

Key stage 1 and 2 teachers required for the Vale of Glamorgan

£90 - £110 per day + Travel Scheme & Free Training: Randstad Education Cardiff...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz