Comment: Hunt survives but his credibility is in tatters

Ian Dunt: "A web of insinuations does not a conviction make"
Ian Dunt: "A web of insinuations does not a conviction make"
Ian Dunt By

The first thing you feel is anger. It's obvious to even casual observers that Jeremy Hunt's behaviour is completely unacceptable. And yet, as soon as he stepped down from the Leveson inquiry witness box the prime minister confirmed he would not refer his case to the independent adviser on ministerial interest or the Cabinet secretary.

If this thought makes you despair, consider this: Just a few months ago Hunt was whispered about as the man to take over the Department of Health from Andrew Lansley. He was even said to have leadership potential. Those hopes now seem laughable and quaint, like watching an old episode of Upstairs Downstairs.

Today, he had little rabbit eyes. At one point I even thought he was going to cry. He cut a nervous, even pathetic, figure as inquiry counsel Robert Jay confidently built a case against him. The golden future is not going to happen.

Political predictions make fools of us all, but I'll take a punt on Hunt surviving until the big summer reshuffle but not being in his place after it. Cameron has long been rumoured to want a big switch-up halfway through his term in office. There is plenty of dead wood to be dumped (Lansley) and live fires to be put out (Hunt). He will also have stuck to his commitment of not repeating the New Labour-era bi-annual reshuffles. It’s all very justifiable and appropriately timed.

If Cameron were to sack Hunt now he would merely encourage the media frenzy around him. Holding out for another couple of months is the most sensible option.

Sacking Hunt would also implicitly criticise his own judgement. Before he handed Hunt responsibility for the BSkyB bid, he had read his memo expressing support for it. There was a frenzied couple of hours after the Vince Cable "war" controversy broke when Cameron suddenly made the Hunt decision and passed him the responsibility. If Hunt was sacked now, Labour's first move would be to focus on those two hours and suggest the prime minister made several catastrophic errors of judgement.

They would then argue that he made the mess even worse having a friendly, informal chat about it with James Murdoch at Rebekah Brooks' house during a Christmas dinner a few days later.

Cameron can’t sack Hunt, because to do so would bring the fire right to his front door.

The prime minister and the media secretary are both saved by the technical lack of evidence against Hunt. He sent the bid to Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and brought in a legal team. He says he had no idea how many texts his special adviser, Adam Smith, received from News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, although he did confess to not informing him of what was expected of him in a quasi-judicial process. Put simply: there is no smoking gun, but there is a distinct smell of cordite.

Taken as a whole, the testimony makes extremely depressing reading. On the day Cable had his responsibility for the bid taken away, Murdoch phoned Hunt. Immediately after that call, the media secretary texted George Osborne and emailed Andy Coulson. "Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid?" he asked the chancellor. "Am seriously worried we are going to screw this up." Osborne replied: "I hope you like our solution." Their solution was to put him in charge. Sinister stuff.

The web of insinuation is too strong to be ignored. Hunt expressed his support for the bid before being handed responsibility but thinks it is credible to brush off the argument that his special adviser was far too friendly with Michel.

Smith was the least of our concerns, really. Whatever else the special adviser did, he did not take to calling the lobbyist "daddy", as Hunt did. Michel's constant texts telling him "well done" on his Commons performances are a total humiliation for the media secretary, and, by extension, the British public, whose elected leaders are evidently the pets of corporate interests.

But a web of insinuations does not a conviction make. It is quite clear that Hunt was either corrupt or incompetent. The former option is more likely, but the latter is easier to prove, especially given that the ministerial code insists ministers are responsible for the actions of their office. Nevertheless, political reality means he will survive.
That's upsetting. If you need to calm your temper, consider this: His credibility is in tatters. His political future is bleak and short. Cameron does his own government further damage by keeping him on, even as he saves himself.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.