John Rentoul: If Hunt misled the House, it's all over for him

The PM will come outfighting for his Culture Secretary

Share
Related Topics

What does it take for a minister to resign these days? Funny you should ask, because the last time I asked it, Charles Clarke was just about to be sacked as Home Secretary in 2006. Six years ago, it was just as much a cliché as it is today that there was once a golden age when barely a week would go by without a Cabinet minister resigning on a point of honour.

The only case that is ever cited is that of Lord Carrington, who resigned as Foreign Secretary when the Falkland Islands were invaded in 1982. But that was a special case, a national humiliation comparable with the failure of the Norway campaign in 1940.

For normal foul-ups, it was never thus. But Clarke was forced to go because he let foreigners out of jail without considering them for deportation. Hunt, on the other hand, gave the go-ahead for a takeover bid that was abandoned soon afterwards.

The phone-hacking scandal scuppered Rupert Murdoch's bid for BSkyB, and created such a vacuum that David Cameron was nearly sucked into it. Because of his closeness to Murdoch, he was forced – by Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, the alternative coalition – to set up the Leveson inquiry into media ethics.

The decision to appoint Lord Justice Leveson was a defensive chess move of the kind that makes you wonder whether politics is scripted by the gods, because it was the Leveson inquiry which disclosed the emails and texts that now threaten Hunt's career.

So, what does it take for a minister to resign? On Friday it seemed Hunt would survive, because the Leader of the Opposition said that "David Cameron looks more like a prime minister organising a cover-up rather than standing up for the public". Once you get to "looks like" you know the case is weak.

Hunt's defence is also weak: that, although he had been biased in favour of the bid before he was in charge of it, he simply followed the advice of Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading. The trouble is that he seems to have tried to influence Ofcom's advice. There is, however, no General Theory of Ministerial Responsibility. Attempts to generalise always come up against contrary cases. Take this quiz question. Not counting general reshuffles, who was the next cabinet minister to resign after David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary in 2004?

It was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who resigned when arguably there was no need for him to do so. I was sitting next to Francis Elliott, The Independent on Sunday journalist who made the phone call to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments that brought the minister down. The minister had failed to register a directorship while he was briefly on the backbenches.

It was a breach of the rules, but a stronger minister could have apologised and stayed. The problem was that the minister was Blunkett, again, brought back into government after a five-month exile. Which goes to show that ministers go when media and political pressures overcome their personal resilience. Blunkett, spirit weakened by pain in his private life and by his previous sacking, went easily. Hunt has put up more of a fight, and has survived the first onslaught.

I am told that, this morning, the Prime Minister will "come out fighting" for him in a long-arranged interview with Andrew Marr on BBC1. No doubt he will deploy any arguments that come to hand. He will point out that laying down the career of a special adviser to save one's own is not new. Stephen Byers did not resign because Jo Moore, his special adviser, wrote that 9/11 was a "very good day to get out anything we want to bury". Gordon Brown did not resign when Damian McBride, one of his special advisers, wrote "juvenile and inappropriate" emails.

As far back as 1954, in the Crichel Down affair, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, laid down the principle that, "where action has been taken by a civil servant of which the minister disapproves and has no prior knowledge, ... there is no obligation on the part of the minister to endorse what he believes to be wrong". That was before Harold Wilson invented special advisers, but the same principle surely applies.

David Cameron may also try the "hand on heart, we all did a bit too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch" line, which he did in the Commons last week, which is code for "Tony Blair did it". Which he didn't, actually. Everyone, including Hunt last week, goes on about Blair flying "halfway round the world" to pay respects at the court of Murdoch in Australia in 1995, when Blair's speech in fact laid out his disagreement with Murdoch on European policy. And Stephen Byers, when he was Trade and Industry Secretary, blocked Murdoch's bid for Manchester United in 1999, for example. Not that facts matter, because everyone believes that Blair was too close to Murdoch, and it is the show of conviction that counts.

Against that, however, is the question of whether Hunt misled Parliament last week, as this newspaper reports today. Never mind the "quasi-legal" arguments about the BSkyB takeover: that is the kind of simple test that could bring Hunt's career to an end.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Retail Business Analyst

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Ecommerce/Retail/E...

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz