Labour seeks explanation for why PM is referring culture secretary to Leveson inquiry rather than ministerial code adviser
David Cameron will be asked to come to the Commons on Monday to explain why he is blocking an immediate inquiry into any breaches of the ministerial code by Jeremy Hunt, and is instead referring the culture secretary to the Leveson inquiry, even though no hearing will be held for a month and Lord Justice Leveson has himself said that the inquiry has not been established to adjudicate on the issue.
Cameron, facing an unprecedented personal poll slump, gave some ground on Sunday by saying he would act if necessary, but insisted: “As things stand, I do not believe he broke the ministerial code.”
In a lengthy interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, Cameron admitted he had got too close to the Murdoch empire, but said there had been “no grand deal” in return for the support of News International at the last election.
He vowed to make the same denial under oath to the Leveson inquiry.
But Labour, facing a dilemma over whether to focus on the economy or Murdoch in the three days running into local election polling day, will press Cameron to come to parliament. They want him personally to explain why he is perverting the original purpose of the Leveson inquiry when he has a custom-built method of examining Hunt – the independent adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan.
A Labour source said: “Cameron is trying to hide behind the Leveson inquiry. With parliament breaking up on Tuesday, Cameron must come to the Commons and explain to the British people why he is ducking his responsibilities to enforce the ministerial code.”
Cameron said: “I think we need to be absolutely clear that the ministerial code is for me, the behaviour of ministers is for me … if ministers have behaved badly, broken the ministerial code, it is my responsibility either to ask Alex Allan’s advice about what should happen or to take action myself and say they can’t remain in the government. I don’t duck my responsibilities for one second.”
But Cameron insisted Hunt would have to testify under oath and in public at Leveson, and said this was a better initial forum. He claimed he had the support of the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, for his proposal.
Hunt has already promised to hand to Leveson all his texts, emails and messages to his former special adviser Adam Smith. Cameron said the contacts between Smith and News Corp, revealed in evidence to Leveson, had been “too close, too frequent, inappropriate”.
The shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, accused Cameron of himself being in breach of the ministerial code for failing to refer Hunt to the independent adviser. She said: “The ministerial code says that if a matter warrants further investigation in the view of the prime minister then he will refer it to the independent adviser. He doesn’t have the discretion to say somebody else can look at it. So the prime minister himself is now breaching the ministerial code.”
Speaking on the BBC Politics Show, she also claimed for the first time that James Murdoch was not “a fit and proper person” to hold a broadcast licence, suggesting News Corp should lose its current 40% stake in BSkyB. She said: “I think he’s not a fit and proper person because of what went on in his organisation: widespread criminality.” The “fit and proper person” test is being examined both by the media regulator, Ofcom, and the culture select committee in a report due to be finalised on Monday and published on Tuesday.
Two former cabinet secretaries suggested Hunt had technically breached the code by failing to control his special adviser’s contacts with News Corp. Lord Butler, who was in the role from 1988 to 1998, said: “There is no doubt that the letter of the ministerial code has been broken.” But he said Hunt’s fate would “turn on whether he was complicit in these over-close contacts”.
Lord Turnbull, cabinet secretary between 2002 and 2005, said Hunt should have done more to control his special adviser. He added that Cameron had “miscalculated” in thinking Leveson would deal with Hunt early or even apply “a final thumbs up or down to Hunt”.
But he said: “Using Leveson as a way of acquiring evidence is quite a good thing. Much more will be made public than if it is done by a nominated retired civil servant, but it has the disadvantage that it takes longer.”
Lord Butler also said he did not believe an inquiry conducted in private by Allan would not carry weight with the media.
With trust in the prime minister being eroded by the Murdoch affair, and a majority of Tory voters calling for Hunt to go, Cameron sought to defend his personal integrity. He said: “The positions I reach are because I believe them, I think they’re right for our country. That’s the platform I stand on. I do not do things, change my policies to suit this proprietor or that proprietor.”
Cameron admitted for the first time he had been unwise to meet James Murdoch at a social event at the home of former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks two days after Vince Cable, the business secretary, had been required to abandon responsibility for media takeovers.
Cameron said he could not recall all the details of what he told Murdoch, but “it was something like: clearly that was unacceptable, it was embarrassing for the government, and to be clear from now on this whole issue would be dealt with impartially, properly … but obviously I had nothing to do with it, I recused myself from it.”
The Sunday Times reported that Brooks, who is under investigation by Scotland Yard for her alleged role in the phone-hacking affair, was ready to disclose text messages and emails between herself and Cameron. The move could be embarrassing for the prime minister, who is believed to have been in regular contact with Brooks by text when she was NI chief.
Cameron said he was not seeking to end relations with proprietors, so long as they were transparent.
“Have we all got too close? Yes. Do we spend too much time on this short-term news management agenda? Yes, we do. Should we try and have a better relationship where we fight the daily fire fight with the media, but we focus on the long-term change our economy needs, our society needs? Yes. And if that comes out of Leveson, great.”