IoS exclusive: Revealed - Cameron's secret summit with News Corp
Murdoch lobbyist dismissed as a 'fantasist' set up talks between the PM and the News Corp board
David Cameron agreed to a meeting with one of Rupert Murdoch's senior executives that was arranged by the lobbyist now at the centre of the Jeremy Hunt scandal, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.
Frédéric Michel, whose numerous emails to Mr Hunt's special adviser have put pressure on the Culture Secretary to resign, set up the secret talks between Mr Cameron and Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain and a member of Mr Murdoch's News Corporation board.
The involvement of Mr Michel, the head of public affairs for News Corp, in such a top-level meeting severely undermines his portrayal by Mr Hunt and the Prime Minister as simply a lobbyist and "Walter Mitty" fantasist.
The previously undisclosed meeting in November 2009 also shows how Mr Cameron was being assiduously courted by News Corp executives beyond the Murdoch family, as the company was gearing up for its bid to take over BSkyB.
George Osborne and William Hague were also present at the talks, The IoS understands.
The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure over the Leveson inquiry ahead of the appearances this week of the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and Mr Cameron's ex-communications chief, Andy Coulson.
At the same time, Mr Cameron is struggling to contain open revolt among Conservative MPs over the direction of his party, including pressure from some figures to sideline George Osborne as election strategist, following Boris Johnson's securing of a second term as London Mayor. Mr Johnson's double victory exposes Mr Cameron's weakness as a leader who never crossed the finishing line, say some MPs.
After weeks of post-Budget turmoil culminating in the Tories' and Liberal Democrats' dismal performance in the local elections, Mr Cameron will try to restart his premiership this week with a businesslike Queen's Speech and a renewed statement with Nick Clegg of the aims and priorities of the coalition. Mr Cameron is also finalising plans for a major cabinet reshuffle to refresh his top team.
But the relaunch will be overshadowed by the appearances of Mr Coulson and Mrs Brooks, two of the people connected to News International who became closest to Mr Cameron and have the capacity to cause maximum damage to the PM under questioning from Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay, QC for the inquiry.
The meeting between Mr Cameron and Mr Aznar was in early November 2009, just weeks after The Sun ended its support for Labour and backed the Conservative Party. At the time, News Corp was preparing to announce its bid to take over BSkyB. It is not known whether the future of the digital broadcaster was discussed at the meeting, but it is likely that the commercial interests of News Corp arose. The Conservatives never announced that the meeting had taken place. A Spanish news agency later reported details of the talks, but this was not picked up in the British press. Mr Cameron had also recently met James Murdoch at the George Club in London to discuss The Sun's support for the Tories.
The secret meeting shows the extent to which Mr Cameron was engaging with News Corp executives, as well as the media tycoon himself, his son, James, and Mrs Brooks.
The meeting brought together Mr Aznar, a centre-right elder statesman in Europe inside the Murdoch circle, with a British prime minister-in-waiting who had just won the seal of approval from the media tycoon. At the time, Mr Cameron was struggling to convince his centre-right counterparts in Europe, including Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, that he had made the right decision in leaving the mainstream European People's Party and creating a new grouping which involved hard-right parties from Poland and the Czech Republic. The Tory leader would have been eager to impress Mr Aznar.
The Government has made strenuous efforts to distance Mr Hunt and Mr Cameron from Mr Michel after emails revealed at the inquiry showed how he and Adam Smith, the Culture Secretary's special adviser, were in close contact while the minister had responsibility for the BSkyB takeover decision.
During questions to Mr Hunt in the Commons last month, a Tory MP described Mr Michel as a "Walter Mitty" figure, a comment which the Culture Secretary failed to dismiss, even though he had met the lobbyist on several occasions.
No 10 has also distanced Mr Cameron from Mr Michel. Mr Smith was forced to resign over the Michel emails, but Mr Hunt has clung on to his job.
In a sign of the panic over the Leveson hearings this week, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne sent a government lawyer to appeal last Friday for the pair and other senior ministers to have advance sight of Mr Coulson's and Mrs Brooks's written submissions. Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne and six other senior cabinet ministers will have privileged advance access to inquiry documents.
Downing Street refused to respond to specific questions about what was discussed at the Aznar meeting, such as whether they talked about News Corp's commercial interests, including the company's plans for BSkyB, and whether Mr Cameron spoke to Mr Michel at the summit.
A No 10 spokesman said: "All contact with News International and News Corp has been declared in the correct way. The Prime Minister has had no inappropriate discussions about the BSkyB bid, either as Prime Minister or before. He deliberately excluded himself from the process."
News Corp declined to comment.
Mr Aznar, who was prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, was appointed as a non-executive director of the News Corp board in 2006.
As well as in the UK and the US, News Corp has made inroads into Spanish media, including the launch of Fox España in 2002.
Mr Aznar accompanied Mr Murdoch when he flew into London last June ahead of Mr Hunt's decision on whether to grant approval for the BSkyB takeover – which was pulled weeks later when it emerged that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler's phone.
Gaga gig tickets for PM's top team
Two members of David Cameron's inner circle enjoyed News International's hospitality at a Lady Gaga concert just days before the Prime Minister discussed the BSkyB bid with James Murdoch.
No 10's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, and his deputy, Kate Fall, were in the NI box at the 02 Arena on 17 December 2010.
Four days later, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was removed from deciding whether to grant approval for Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over BSkyB after telling undercover reporters how he wanted to "declare war" on Mr Murdoch.
Two days after this, on 23 December, Mr Cameron went to a Christmas party hosted by NI's then chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, where he discussed the BSkyB bid with James Murdoch.
Ms Fall and Mr Llewellyn have declared on the Downing Street website that they received concert tickets from NI, within the rules. It has not been revealed until now that they saw Lady Gaga, right, who was performing the London leg of her Monster Ball tour. The pair were among the 20,000 fans watching Lady Gaga perform hit songs "Just Dance", "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance", after declaring: "Tonight we're gonna be super freaks!"
Jane Merrick and Charles Engwell
This article originally wrongly attributed a reference to Mr Michel as a 'Walter Mitty character' to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, which has since been removed.
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