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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?