Inquiry tells No 10: It's your job to decide whether Hunt broke rules

 

David Cameron's strategy to prevent an independent probe into his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was last night dramatically undermined by the Leveson Inquiry.

Sources on the inquiry team made clear that it was not its role to determine whether or not Mr Hunt had breached official ministerial rules in his dealings with News Corp or those of his special adviser, Adam Smith.

They added that Lord Justice Leveson would not rule on Mr Hunt's official conduct in relation to the Ministerial Code when he produces his final report.

Downing Street has insisted since the scandal first broke that Mr Hunt's conduct was a matter for Leveson and not Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister's independent adviser on the Ministerial Code, whose job it should be to investigate wrongdoing.

At first they appeared to have Leveson's agreement, but yesterday inquiry sources made very clear he would not adjudicate on Mr Hunt or any other minister's behaviour under the code.

"That is not a matter for the Leveson Inquiry," they said. "That is a matter for Sir Alex Allan. Leveson is not the arbiter of the ministerial code." The development came as it emerged that:

* The public believes that Mr Hunt should resign as Culture Secretary by a margin of five to one, according to a ComRes poll for The Independent. Only one in eight people thinks he should keep his job.

* Sir Christopher Kelly, the respected chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said it was "obvious" that Mr Cameron should call Sir Alex to investigate whether or not Mr Hunt had broken the Ministerial Code.

* The Culture Secretary has given civil servants access to his private email account to look for correspondence with Mr Smith relating to News Corp. He has also handed over his mobile phone and telephone records. All relevant emails, texts and call logs are expected to be passed to the Leveson Inquiry early next week.

* An alliance of media groups opposed to News Corp's takeover of BSkyB claims it was blocked from engaging with Mr Hunt and his officials for more than three months, and was only granted a single "sham" meeting with the Culture Secretary three weeks after he had already given his provisional blessing to the £8bn offer.

But it is the intervention by the Leveson Inquiry that is likely to cause the biggest headache for the Government.

On Tuesday the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood spoke to the judge after the release of emails by News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel suggesting inappropriate contact between Mr Hunt and the company. He informed him that MPs were pressing No 10 for an investigation and the two agreed the affair should not result in a separate probe. The following morning, the judge said: "It seems to me that the better course is to allow this inquiry to proceed."

Downing Street agreed immediately suggesting that the decision not to call in Sir Alex was down to Leveson. But it now appears that the judge was not aware this might require him to broaden the nature of his inquiry into specific infringements of the ministerial code.

Yesterday it was made clear he would not do this – undermining a key element of Downing Street's strategy to prevent a separate inquiry under the code which Labour claims has been breached three times by Mr Hunt.

To add to their troubles Sir Christopher said: "There can be no doubt that the allegations that have been made about the boundaries and behaviours of ministers, special advisers and the civil service need to be properly investigated."

Mr Hunt said he believed he would be cleared of any wrongdoing and would be fully co-operating with the Leveson Inquiry. In the first survey about whether Mr Hunt should quit, 63 per cent of people agreed that he should resign in the light of revelations that his office secretly passed information to News Corp during its bid to take over BSkyB. Only 12 per cent disagreed and 24 per cent did not know.

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