Can Jeremy Hunt survive the political heat?

As secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Jeremy Hunt has a packed summer diary. Then there’s his much-anticipated appearance at the Leveson inquiry. Toby Helm, political editor, on a minister in the spotlight

The fine weather had arrived at last on Thursday evening and all seemed well once more in the Downing Street rose garden. David Cameron’s young children played hide and seek among the flower beds and raced between groups of cabinet ministers and journalists, as the adults enjoyed the wine and canapés. There was a premature end-of-term feel as much of the chat focused on the great British summer to come, the Queen’s diamond jubilee, the European football championships and of course the London Olympics.

Cameron himself was in jovial form as he took the microphone and heaped compliments on the popular retiring head of press for the Conservative party for whom the event was being held, the veteran ex-tabloid hack Henry Macrory. Cheers went up when 64-year-old Macrory, past author of an agony uncle column in the Daily Star, which earned him the nickname Uncle Percy, followed with hilarious accounts of his time defending ministers from the prying press.

Hostilities – and reality – were suspended in the heat and the fun. Lobby correspondents and ministers laughed together.

“The thing about all this Leveson stuff,” said one cabinet minister breezily, “is that nobody out there is interested. When you mention Rebekah Brooks, all people know is that she used to be married to that EastEnders bloke. That’s about it.”

Journalists nodded politely, though not in agreement – the same journalists who, in many cases, had just hot-footed it from their offices in Parliament, having penned stories and columns saying that the scandal over Murdoch’s battle to take over BSkyB was moving ever closer to David Cameron and the venue for the event in which they were now having such fun – Downing Street.

“Devastating memo shown to Leveson Inquiry puts PM in line of fire” was the front page headline in the next day’s Independent, one of many to take the same line of attack.

The prime minister is good at appearing calm in a crisis. And this was no exception. After his wife Samantha emerged on the balcony carrying their youngest child, Florence, the PM took the hint and disappeared inside for domestic duties just like any dad.

It had not, however, been just another day. A few hours earlier, potentially devastating evidence had emerged at the Leveson inquiry which challenged Cameron’s assertion that the government had been strictly even-handed over the £8bn BSkyB deal – the biggest in British media history.

A memo written by Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, to the prime minister in late 2010 – before Cameron gave Hunt the quasi-judicial role of ruling on the deal in December that year – showed clearly he was very much in favour of it going ahead and appalled at suggestions it might not. But the memo’s release raised the crucial question: how could the prime minister having received it, have thought Hunt could be impartial as the minister in charge when he had made his view so clear?

The memo also called into question a statement by the culture secretary to parliament last month in which he assured the house that he had made “absolutely no interventions seeking to influence” the decision on whether to refer the bid to regulators, when it was the responsibility of Vince Cable, the business secretary.

On first impressions the memo – and Hunt’s subsequent quasi-judicial role – looked like clear evidence of government willingness to help News Corp. And the man ultimately responsible for giving the preferential treatment was the prime minister.

The Leveson inquiry may not be gripping the average punter, but as it nears its climax it is preoccupying the press and, behind the scenes, terrifying the wits out of the government.

And contrary to the line that ministers are putting out, it can have appeal outside “Westminster village”. On Friday, it suddenly gained populist EastEnders appeal, when a mass of hugely embarrassing emails and text messages – some of which bordered on the flirtatious – were released showing how close Tories and Liberal Democrats got to the Murdoch team at a time when, strictly speaking, they would have been very much wiser to have kept their distance.

Hunt and Fred Michel, News Corporation’s chief lobbyist for the bid, referred to each other as “daddy” in texts – because they had children born within a few hours of each other. Cameron’s press aide Gabby Bertin and Nick Clegg’s adviser Lena Pietsch exchanged kisses on texts with Michel as they enthused about meeting up when the bid was being considered, and tracked progress on causes of mutual interest.

One exchange showed how Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications, met Michel at a “discreet location” at the height of the scandal over the News of the World hacking into the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. As the Observer reports, an email from Michel to Julia Goldsworthy, a Lib Dem adviser and former MP, even talks of how Michel claimed he had attended a fundraising event during the Lib Dem leadership campaign in 2007. While this was before Michel joined News Corp, it will not exactly strengthen the deputy prime minister’s claims to be clear of links to the current Murdoch clan.

After a dreadful few weeks in which pressure has grown on Hunt to resign, since an early batch of emails between his since sacked special adviser Adam Smith and Michel suggested a back channel between the culture secretary’s office and News Corp, ministers are hoping the diamond jubilee celebrations starting next weekend will mark a moment when the clamour dies down.

Labour, by contrast, is determined not to let it do so. “We are about to enter a de-politicised period where politics goes underground for a period. That is what the government will be hoping at least,” said an adviser to Labour leader Ed Miliband. “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen as we run through to the Olympics.”

Miliband should not have too much difficulty. The list of those appearing before Leveson in coming days and weeks will ensure that the story stays in the headlines. The government will have some relief on Monday when Tony Blair is called. Then on Tuesday Michael Gove, the education secretary, a former Times journalist and close acquaintance of many in the Murdoch team, takes the stand followed by home secretary Theresa May.

On Wednesday, Vince Cable, the business secretary, who was taken off the BSkyB deal by Cameron after telling undercover reporters he wanted to “declare war” on Murdoch will appear, followed by the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke.

However, all these will be mere appetisers for the big event on Thursday when Hunt himself gives evidence. How will the culture secretary be able to claim neutrality when he had made his view clear before he took on responsibility for the bid? Many Tory and Lib Dem MPs believe Hunt cannot survive in his job and that Cameron should remove him before the Olympics when he is scheduled to perform numerous public duties on behalf of London 2012. “It will look simply terrible if he is still there as our ambassador for the Olympics,” said one senior Lib Dem.

The problem for the government is that Leveson is a story which keeps giving and will do so for months. Tory MPs describe it as “a monster of Cameron’s creation”, which he cannot control. With every appearance by a new witness comes a slew of documents and statements, revealing how government works at the highest, most intimate levels.

One of the most intriguing submissions of last week was the witness statement by Smith, whom everyone had been led to believe had left with his tail between his legs having accepted that he stepped way over the mark in his dealings with Michel. But Smith goes out of his way to make clear that he was pushed out to save the skins of others – namely Hunt and his most senior civil servants. Smith cites a letter from the permanent secretary in the department, Jonathan Stephens, written to him after he resigned. Stephens told him he had been the “best and straightest” special adviser he had come across in 30 years in Whitehall. “You have given great service to Jeremy,” he said. “How you left today was characteristic of the selfless and self-effacing way you’ve approached the role. I am sorry it was inevitably so traumatic. We are thinking of you and if there is anything I can do to help please do not hesitate to contact me. With very best wishes, Jonathan.”

Smith was not going to be bought off with flattery with his career in a heap. Perhaps a little bitterly he wrote: “At no time was I invited to consider the evidence which had been published with Mr Hunt or with the permanent secretary or with anybody else. Nor did Mr Hunt, nor anybody else, criticise my conduct.”

So why was Smith – a top-class adviser with the best references from his permanent secretary and who had done great service – left with no option but to quit? He was sacrificed to save the man at the top.

Smith also raises other points that may be far from helpful to Hunt and that could get picked up by the Leveson inquiry. In his statement he says that Hunt, shortly after being given responsibility for the BSkyB bid, asked civil servants to look into whether “we are permitted to share the Ofcom report [into the takeover] with News Corp but not with other interested parties?” Might that not amount to favouritism in the eyes of some?

After requests for restraint from Leveson, Labour is holding its fire, and waiting. When it is confident it will not compromise the judge-led inquiry in any way, it will, in the words of one adviser “let off its biggest cannons and the noise will be bloody deafening”. Only then, maybe, will we learn whether Hunt can survive this memorable summer in post. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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