On the face of it the evidence for referring Hunt to the independent adviser on the Ministerial code seems overwhelming. Hunt has always maintained his role was “quasi-judicial”, i.e. he should act like a judge in keeping his distance from all interested parties and certainly not showing favour to one of them. Yet, almost incredibly, there were 191 phone calls, 158 emails and 799 texts between DCMS (more than nine-tenths of them with Adam Smith, Hunt’s special adviser) and Frederic Michel, Murdoch’s main lobbyist. Hunt said Smith acted without authority and was unaware of the nature and intensity of Smith’s contacts with News International, implying that he was aware that a back-channel was operating, which was totally improper. But Hunt’s excuse won’t wash. He himself said that Smith acted as his “eyes and ears at meetings I cannot attend and knows exactly what I would want to happen”.
Even leaving that aside, it seems clear that Hunt has broken the Ministerial code in at least two respects. The code says (paragraph 3.3):
the responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment. Individual Ministers will be accountable to the PM, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers”.
That is decisive. But there is another damning fact. On 3 March 2011 Hunt told the Commons that “all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation” were being published. We now know that that was very far from true. Misleading Parliament is a very serious, potentially lethal, offence for Ministers.
So why, within 25 minutes of Hunt completing his evidence before Leveson, did Cameron decide there was no case for referring Hunt to the independent adviser on the Ministerial code who was specifically appointed to take such cases as this outside the arena of heated political emotions? Shades, one might add, of John Yates deciding in just a few hours that there was no case in 2008 for re-opening the inquiry into phone-hacking at News International. Obviously Cameron, after a string of continuing PR disasters, has a strong vested interest in preventing a forced resignation of one of his closest Ministers. But should the sole prerogative for deciding on referral rest with Cameron alone when he has such a conflict of interest?
Hunt, like all Ministers, is accountable to Parliament. Parliament, not the PM, should decide this matter by a vote following a debate whether instigated by an Opposition Supply Day, the Back Bench Business Committee, or the DCMS Select Committee.