Huffpost UK Politics uk

Jeremy Hunt At Leveson - Will He Get Sacked?

Posted: Updated:
CAMERON HUNT
The Real Casualty Of The Jeremy Hunt Affair May David Cameron | PA

The question most people will ask now that Jeremy Hunt has appeared before the Leveson Inquiry on Thursday is whether it will cause the Culture Secretary get sacked. The short-term answer is no, the longer and more convoluted answer is possibly yes.

Based on what has happened at Leveson so far - a protracted and often unrewarding series of pasty faces being grilled on the finer points of the politico-media complex - it's hard to see that a "smoking gun" has surfaced today.

Hunt, like every other key witness has been loyal to their respective boss and extensively briefed by lawyers. Many of them have been designated "core witnesses", and as such seen the written evidence they're hauled in to talk about beforehand.

Politically speaking, a fairly feisty intervention by Lord Justice Leveson a few weeks ago meant that the braying for Jeremy Hunt to resign became muted. Leveson essentially told Labour to stop pre-empting Jeremy Hunt's appearance before his inquiry, their shadow ministers duly shut up.

That curfew will come to an end at the same time as Hunt's evidence, and calls for him to resign will undoubtedly resume.

The central problem Jeremy Hunt has is plausibility.

Hunt says the scandal has been caused by the "barrage" that his special adviser Adam Smith came under from News Corp, and that Smith for some unknown reason failed to inform Hunt this was happening. This despite Smith and Hunt being close colleagues of several years standing, and News Corp's lobbyist Fred Michel trying to contact Smith around five times every day.

Adam Smith engaged in an extensive and constant dialogue with Fred Michel ahead of the takeover process, for which Smith had to resign. But today we also learned that Hunt was sending congratulatory text messages to James Murdoch, hours before Hunt took over from Vince Cable as the adjudicator of the takeover bid.

Hunt knew that Murdoch was unhappy with Cable's handling of the bid, and Hunt admitted on Thursday that he had an inkling he was going to have to assume the quasi-judicial role - so why send the "congrats" text?

He claims he kept out of the process before it became his to rule on, because to interfere would be improper. And yet he still spoke to Murdoch on the phone, in a way which couldn't be minuted by officials in a formal meeting, something civil servants and lawyers had advised him was unwise.

Any right-thinking person would have and should have realised that once Jeremy Hunt took over the responsibility for judging whether Rupert Murdoch should have full control of Britain's largest satellite broadcaster, proper impartiality should have meant that any "back-channel" contact between his office and News Corp should have ceased. Why should News Corp require "reassuring"? Is that the government's job, to re-assure mega-corporations? Why was Adam Smith not told what was acceptable behaviour and what was not?

It makes no sense for Hunt to continue in his job - even if there is no smoking gun. His political capital is spent because any normal person would be highly sceptical about his narrative. But the reason why he'll fall on his sword is because the heat is now getting dangerously close to David Cameron, who knew full well that Jeremy Hunt was "broadly supportive" of the takeover and had told tattle-tales to the PM about Vince Cable's hostility to it.

This is where it becomes obvious that Hunt will be the government scalp - because the only other one on offer in this whole tedious, torrid affair is David Cameron's, for allowing Hunt to take over from Cable when he knew the Tory minister was just as biased as the Lib Dem one he was replacing.

The Prime Minister should have realised that as an acknowledged cheerleader of the Murdoch BSkyB takeover, Jeremy Hunt was an unsuitable adjudicator.

Of course it was forced upon him to a point, after Vince Cable disgraced himself in a tabloid sting and made it clear he was hostile; arguably Cameron was forced into a corner because there was no other Cabinet member who could do the job other than Hunt.

But Cameron still had wiggle-room at this point - he could have thrown the whole thing beyond government oversight and sent it all to the Competition Commission. He could have taken the view that the inherent biases clearly visible in both Cable and Hunt showed a secretary state should not have the power to adjudicate and changed the law accordingly. He didn't.

The best thing Cameron could do at this stage is sack Hunt and hope that the firestorm that the PM himself started by ordering the Leveson inquiry in the first place can be contained. It won't stop further damage - Andy Coulson charged with perjury, Brooks charged with other serious offences; no modern PM has ever been so indirectly associated with so many criminal trials.

But a political strategist would doubtless say the resignation of Hunt would grant Cameron the pound of flesh that all these kinds of sleazy scandals warrant, to draw a line under the sorry story.

The lingering question will be of Cameron's personal judgement. He hired Andy Coulson, who's now facing charges of perjury. He courted Rebekah Brooks, she's now due in court. He allowed Jeremy Hunt to preside over a potential Murdoch splurge of money, power and influence in Britain, and his minister allowed an office of state to be muddied by that process.

All of those things could be explained by saying Cameron didn't know about the skeletons in the closet at the time. But most oddly of all, when the warning signs were clearly visible, Cameron ordered the very inquiry which revealed much of this distracting litany of innuendo and collective amnesia.

Does any of this really show the sort of strategic thinking we might expect of a great prime minister?

Around the Web

No matter what Jeremy Hunt says to Leveson, he must go | Vernon ...

Jeremy Hunt to appear at Leveson inquiry on Thursday - The Guardian

BBC News - Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Hunt fair on BSkyB, says top ...

Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Hunt 'briefed David Cameron on BSkyB ...

Jeremy Hunt Sent Memo Praising BSkyB Bid Before Being ...

Jeremy Hunt to face Leveson questioning

Jeremy Hunt to appear at Leveson inquiry on Thursday

Andy Coulson charge shows how David Cameron's past overshadows his future

Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Hunt raised no concerns about Adam Smith's contact ...