Jeremy Hunt urged to push for ministerial inquiry over BSkyB
Lorely Burt becomes latest Lib Dem to suggest Hunt clear himself by asking to be referred to adviser for ministerial code
The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been urged by a Liberal Democrat MP to clear himself by asking David Cameron to refer his handling of the News Corporation/BSkyB deal to the independent adviser for the ministerial code.
Lorely Burt told BBC Radio 4′s The World at One that Hunt should not have been given responsibility for the BSkyB deal because she believed he was always in favour of News Corp’s controversial takeover.
“I certainly think that Jeremy Hunt should give his evidence before a decision is made, but I think Jeremy would do himself a lot of good if he asked David Cameron to actually refer him to the independent adviser for ministerial codes,” Burt said.
“I was firmly under the impression that he did support the BSkyB bid before he took over the job of making this quasi-judicial decision and I don’t think Jeremy should have been put in that position. It’s right that Jeremy should clear himself because I think it’s unfortunate that any suggestion of probity is left.”
Burt is the latest figure from the Conservatives’ coalition government partners, along with Lord Oakeshott, the senior Lib Dem peer, and deputy leader Simon Hughes, to call for the prime minister to refer the affair to Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on the ministerial code.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, accused the prime minister of organising a cover-up over the affair.
It emerged on Friday that Hunt was to disclose all his private correspondence over the BSkyB takeover deal to the Leveson inquiry.
Hunt would disclose any relevant emails and text messages to News Corp executives and his former special adviser Adam Smith over the controversial takeover bid, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed.
Smith resigned on Wednesday after admitting that his communications with a News Corp lobbyist while the company was trying to take full control of BSkyB “at times went too far”.
Hunt said: “I will be handing over all my private texts and emails to my special adviser to the Leveson inquiry and I am confident they will vindicate that I handled the BSkyB merger process with total propriety.”
A DCMS spokesman said: “The secretary of state gave a statement to parliament this week in which he made it clear that he would be co-operating fully with the inquiry and submitting evidence in due course. He feels strongly that the inquiry is the right forum for this to be discussed, and this is the clear wish of the judge himself too. This is the right process for addressing these issues.”
The culture secretary has faced mounting pressure since Tuesday, when the Leveson inquiry published more than 160 pages of emails between News Corp’s European public affairs director, Frédéric Michel, and his boss, James Murdoch, detailing apparently extensive contact between Hunt’s office and the lobbyist at a time when Hunt was considering the company’s £8bn bid for the 60.9% of BSkyB it did not already own.
Hughes refused on Thursday night to back Hunt over the BSkyB affair. Appearing on BBC1′s Question Time, Hughes said he could not understand why the prime minister had not referred the case for examination under the ministerial code of conduct.
Oakeshott said on Thursday night that Hughes “speaks for all Lib Dems. We all agree with him.”
But Liberal Democrat officials representing Nick Clegg were less emphatic, saying: “Nick shares Simon’s desire to get to the truth. Whether through Leveson or another route is a question of process.”
The Conservatives argue that Leveson may not be able to rule on whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code since that is beyond the inquiry’s terms of reference, but it can look at the evidence with which a judgment could be made.
Miliband said on Friday: “Every day David Cameron looks more like a prime minister organising a cover-up rather than standing up for the public. First he refuses to sack Jeremy Hunt despite the weight of evidence against him. Now, despite all-party calls to do so, he refuses even to ask the independent adviser on ministerial interests to examine whether Mr Hunt broke the ministerial code.”
The former leader of the Conservative party Lord Howard defended Hunt on Friday, saying he should not resign and everyone should wait for the Leveson inquiry to get “to the bottom of what happened”.
Hunt has asked Leveson to allow him to give evidence to the inquiry earlier than scheduled in an attempt to head off the mounting controversy.
“The facts make it clear that Jeremy Hunt at every stage took independent advice and followed that independent advice,” he told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme. “We should wait to hear every side of the story before coming to conclusion.”
Howard, a former home secretary, said there was a danger in arguing that politicians be kept out all quasi-judicial processes such as the BSkyB bid.
“Some people have suggested that these decisions should be taken from politicians and I wouldn’t dismiss that suggestion out of hand, but you’ve always got to remember that when you take decisions from elected politicians and give them to other people, so called independent people, you’re losing an important element of accountability, and accountability is at the heart of parliamentary democracy,” he said.
Michael Fallon, the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, told the BBC Politics Show: “We already have an inquiry into the relationship between government and BSkyB under way, headed by a very senior judge and he himself has said the better course would be to allow that inquiry to proceed to see the evidence, to test Jeremy Hunt on the evidence, and for him to give his side of the story and later on if it transpires there has been some breach of the ministerial code, then of course that can be looked at”.
Tom Watson, the deputy chairman of the Labour party, countered: “The only person that does not want an independent assessor to do an independent inquiry is the prime minister. The truth about this is that everyone is running absolutely terrified because they are going to be exposed as in hock to Rupert Murdoch”.
He accused the Conservatives of running away from the procedure for policing ministerial code.