The Liberal Democrats are ready to back an inquiry into whether Jeremy Hunt broke the ministerial code in an attempt to draw a line under the row over the Culture Secretary's handling of the BSkyB deal.
In an escalation of coalition tensions over the Tories' close relations with Rupert Murdoch's media empire, the Lib Dems could support a Labour motion that is expected to call on David Cameron to refer Mr Hunt to Sir Alex Allan, his adviser on the ministerial code. Despite mounting pressure from opponents, constitutional experts and even some Conservative MPs, Downing Street has repeatedly refused to call Sir Alex in.
The Culture Secretary emerged from six hours before the Leveson inquiry last week with his career intact. The Prime Minister dismissed calls for an inquiry 25 minutes after Mr Hunt had finished giving evidence on Thursday evening, although critics claimed the hearing proved he had misled Parliament on more than one occasion.
But Labour leaders plan to use an Opposition Day debate when the Commons returns next week to ratchet up pressure on Mr Cameron to act. The final details of the motion have yet to be agreed, but it is understood it will stop short of a vote of no confidence, in an attempt to persuade wavering Lib Dem and Tory MPs to back it too.
And a senior Lib Dem source said yesterday that while most of the party's MPs would not go so far as demanding Mr Hunt be fired, they could decide at a meeting on 12 June to support Labour in asking Sir Alex to investigate. The source said: "There is a difference between whether he stays or goes, and whether he should be referred to the adviser on the ministerial code."
The Labour attack is expected to focus on two distinct areas – Mr Hunt's alleged failure to take responsibility for his former special adviser, Adam Smith, and claims that he misled MPs over the extent of his own contacts with the Murdoch empire.
Mr Smith resigned in April after it emerged that he had exchanged hundreds of texts and emails with News Corp while Mr Hunt was considering the proposal to take over BSkyB. Labour MPs insist Mr Hunt misled Parliament when he said he had made no intervention to influence the BSkyB decision, and when he claimed his contact with the News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel had been only at official meetings. Evidence disclosed at the Leveson inquiry raised questions about both claims, including the revelation that Mr Hunt wrote a memo to the Prime Minister in November 2010 in support of the bid.
Mr Cameron strengthened the ministerial code when he became Prime Minister in an attempt to improve faith in the political system. But Sir Philip Mawer, who was Sir Alex's predecessor, expressed "frustration" that he had not been asked to investigate the former defence secretary, Liam Fox, and his bizarre working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty.
Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader and culture spokesman, said Mr Cameron's "arrogant" refusal to sanction an investigation into Mr Hunt "fundamentally undermined" his independent adviser on the code. She added: "It is evident to everyone, including David Cameron, that Jeremy Hunt misled Parliament and broke the ministerial code.
"The only person who can formally investigate, and find Hunt guilty, is Sir Alex Allan, and the only person who can allow him to do that is the Prime Minister, who persists in refusing. If this scenario were taking place in a distant country with no democracy, we would find it hard to stomach; the fact that this is happening in Britain today beggars belief."
A Cabinet Office spokesman said yesterday that Sir Alex, who is paid £20,000 a year, carries out other duties, including offering advice to ministers and senior civil servants on their private interests. He added: "Sir Alex isn't paid to sit around waiting for a call from the Prime Minister."
The Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, said Sir Alex should be allowed to start inquiries of his own accord – and warned that he might reopen his committee's inquiry into the rules. Mr Jenkin said the committee had made clear "that the Prime Minister's adviser on ministerial interests should not have to depend on a referral from the Prime Minister in order to determine whether or not there has been a breach of the code".
The constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor, who was once Mr Cameron's tutor at Oxford University, said there had been two clear breaches of the code by Mr Hunt. "He said that he had given Parliament all the communications between his department and News Corp, but he did not give the communications between Smith and Michel. Hunt says he did not authorise Smith to communicate with Michel. This is implausible since the two were very close. Hunt should resign – and the sooner the better. There is no need even to bother Sir Alex Allan. The issues are clear."
The code states that "ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister", and that "individual ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers".
But the Conservative Party deputy chairman Michael Fallon denied that there had been a serious breach of the code. He said: "The code is there to make sure that ministers conduct themselves appropriately, but the best test of that was the [Leveson] inquiry session... in front of a judge where all these issues were fully brought out and evidence was taken under oath from the secretary of state himself.
"Of course the minister's responsible for his special adviser. He should have known the full extent of the contact the special adviser was having with Murdoch and News International, but once that was established then of course the special adviser resigned."
Cameron and the code
Few politicians have been as eager as David Cameron to invoke the ministerial code of conduct. In opposition, the Tory leader showed great keenness, personally – see below – for investigations whenever ministers' conduct was in question. Until now, that is.
On Iraq "dodgy dossier", July 2003
"We need to clear up once and for all the controversy about the dodgy dossiers. The ministerial code... states that any error, inadvertent or not, must be corrected 'at the earliest opportunity'."
On Tessa Jowell's financial affairs, March 2006
"We need to get to the truth. We need to get the facts out and then we can see whether anyone has broken the ministerial code. That is the key."
On John Prescott's affair, May 2003
"Clearly, he looks a fool, but our job as the Opposition is to call him to account over his ministerial record."
On Gordon Brown's claim that a majority of drivers would benefit from a new green car tax, July 2008
"Will he at least admit that when he told me from the Dispatch Box that a majority of drivers would benefit, he was wrong? Will he now correct himself and apologise to the House for getting it wrong?"
On senior Labour MPs filmed apparently offering their expertise for cash, March 2010
"The House of Commons needs to conduct a thorough investigation, but also the Prime Minister would want to get to the bottom of the allegations being made about his Government."
On allegations last week that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt misled Parliament over his relationship with the Murdoch empire
The Prime Minister: Nothing.
Downing Street: "Jeremy Hunt's evidence has shown that he acted properly while he was responsible for the BSkyB bid. He took independent advice, as well as a number of decisions which were against News Corp's wishes. The Prime Minister will not be referring Jeremy Hunt to Sir Alex Allan."
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