What if Cameron refuses to refer the Hunt case to Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on ministerial interests? Not for the first time Parliament is hamstrung by the fact that under current procedures it is accepted that only the Prime Minister is empowered, whether on the conduct of a Minister or on a policy issue of national importance, to make a referral to an independent inquiry.
It is bizarre that this is tamely accepted by the House since what is at issue is nearly always the actions or the policies of the Executive itself, and it is a clear conflict of interest that the decision on whether to mount an inquiry into those actions or policies should lie with the head of that Executive who has every reason to block it. It is time Parliament got off its knees and took the lead in holding the government to account which has always been, or should always have been, its main raison d’etre. This could still be done on Monday before the House prorogues.
The case for an immediate independent inquiry into the Hunt saga is irrefutable. The cascade of intimate and information-sensitive communications via a back-channel between Hunt’s office and Murdoch’s chief lobbyist, when Hunt himself had repeatedly declared to Parliament that he was conducting the assessment of the BSkyB bid in a transparent, fair and semi-judicial manner, make the case for a referral unimpeachable.
Of course Cameron will seek to use every procedural device to avoid it, as he has already done by trying to latch it on to the Leveson inquiry. But now that has been smartly rejected by Leveson himself, the obvious reference to Sir Alex Allen speaks for itself.
But what if Cameron, desperate not to lose the firewall which at present protects No.10 from the enveloping Murdoch toxin, plays for time on Monday, the last day of this long Parliamentary session, prior to 9 days adjournment and then all the distracting hullaballoo of the Queen’s Speech and the week-long debate that follows it?
However, his hand could still be forced if a formal request is made to the Speaker on Monday for an urgent debate later the same day, and if that were granted, my judgement is that enough Tories and LibDem MPs are so appalled by the Hunt revelations that a motion to refer the whole matter to the independent watchdog of the Ministerial Code would very likely carry, or perhaps (shades of the BSkyB bid saga) the government would concede to avoid suffering defeat.