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

The PM will come outfighting for his Culture Secretary

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.;

React Now

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

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Music Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Maths Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

C# Developer - West Sussex - permanent - £40k - £50k

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments