Jeremy Hunt's former adviser Adam Smith has been given access to government legal aides to help him prepare for his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry.
Mr Smith is due to take the stand today to give his account of dealings with the News Corp lobbyist Fréd Michel which, he has claimed, were not authorised by his boss at the Department of Culture.
He will face tough questioning about why he stepped beyond his remit by passing confidential information to News Corp and the extent of his contacts with the company.
The inquiry will also want to know what discussions Mr Smith had with Mr Hunt about the deal and to what extent the Culture Secretary was aware of his activities.
The Department of Culture said it had offered Mr Smith legal advice on what to expect at the hearing as well as access to departmental documents relating to his time in office. However, it insisted the advice would not extend to "prepping" Mr Smith for his appearance, using trained lawyers to play the role of Lord Leveson and the council for the inquiry, Robert Jay, QC.
Observers who watched the evidence given by Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson this month said it seemed clear they had used "role play" to prepare. The Conservative Party is understood to have lined up a team of lawyers to advise David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and other Tory ministers on their appearances before the Leveson inquiry.
The lawyers, who will be paid from party funds, are on stand-by to provide help as ministers spend hours preparing to answer questions about their links with newspaper groups.
Ministers are also being provided with government legal advice – paid for by the taxpayer – but only covering their time in office, not their dealings with News International while in opposition. On Tuesday The Independent asked if the Conservative Party was extending that support to Mr Smith. Despite repeated calls no comment was provided.
The inquiry will also hear today from Mr Michel. It was his emails, released by News Corp to the inquiry, that revealed the behind-the-scenes role that Mr Smith played during the News Corp bid. The inquiry will try to establish from the emails how much Mr Michel was co-operating with the Government and how much he was "boasting" to his bosses, including James Murdoch, about his contacts.
Tomorrow, the inquiry will hear from Jonathan Stephens, permanent secretary at the Department of Culture. He will be asked whether he authorised and approved of Mr Smith's role in liaising with News Corp. Previously he stopped short of saying he gave the arrangement his blessing, saying merely that he was "aware and content".
A spokeswoman for the department said: "In line with standard practice Mr Smith has been offered access to department documents relating to the evidence he will give as well as legal advice on the process of the inquiry. However, this will not specifically relate to the evidence he will give."
Hunt underfire: What minister has to fear
Jeremy Hunt's former special adviser, Adam Smith, will be asked what he told News Corp about Mr Hunt's consideration of its planned £8bn takeover of BSkyB. The Leveson Inquiry last month released 163 pages of emails between News Corp lobbyist Fréd Michel and senior figures, notably James Murdoch, revealing secret contacts with Mr Hunt's department.
Who was JH?
In the emails, Mr Michel repeatedly refers to "JH", such as "JH taking me through process for tomorrow now" (3 March 2011). In his witness statement, Mr Michel said he did not mean to suggest he had spoken directly to Mr Hunt. Likewise, Mr Hunt says Adam Smith acted without his knowledge or approval in dealing so closely with Mr Michel. One of the key issues will be whether Mr Michel exagerrated the closeness of his contacts with Mr Hunt's department to impress his bosses – or whether he was indeed speaking to Mr Hunt.
Many of Mr Michel's emails suggest he was receiving inside information from Mr Hunt's department about ministerial statements. Arguably the most damaging – for both Mr Michel, Mr Smith and Mr Hunt – was sent by Mr Michel to James Murdoch on 24 January 2011, revealing the thrust of Mr Hunt's statement to Parliament the next day. Mr Michel told Mr Murdoch: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow [although absolutely illegal!]". In the statement, Mr Hunt rejected Ofcom's advice to refer the bid to the competition authorities.
On 27 June 2011, as the News Corp bid was reaching its final stages, Mr Michel emailed Rebekah Brooks, News International's chief executive, to tell her that "JH is no[w] starting to looking to phone-hacking/ practices more thoroughly". On 30 June, a week before the Dowler story, Mr Hunt gave his backing to the takeover.