Whether you regard Jeremy Hunt as guilty or innocent, an investigation is a must

The news that Liberal Democrat MPs are to abstain on a Labour motion calling upon David Cameron to refer Jeremy Hunt’s conduct to Sir Alex Allan is a disappointment. To be blunt, it is all very well letting it be known via ‘sources’ that we do not approve of the failure to refer the ‘Hunt Affair’, but then to stand aside when an opportunity to press the matter arises will not be understood by anyone outside the Westminster bubble.

Indeed, I would suggest that, if Jeremy Hunt wants to be anything other than a lame duck Secretary of State, he should refer himself, as Baroness Warsi has done.

You see, there are plenty of people who believe that Jeremy Hunt is guilty, and regardless of whether he is or not, they have no reason to change their view until such time as the matter is considered properly and independently. I’m probably in that category myself. Every decision that he now makes, if in any way it potentially impacts on the fortunes of the Murdoch family, will be viewed through the prism of the question, “Is he truly neutral?”, and he would have to be a remarkable person if his judgement was not skewed subconsciously by it.

David Cameron is damaged too. Loyalty is a wonderful thing, but transparency and good governance are more important still. The suspicion that he is protecting a colleague without regard to propriety reduces his credibility as a man of honour, risks reputational damage to his administration, and removes any claim to a higher moral tone than that of the previous Labour administration.

And if you believe that truth is just as important as power, and if you believe in a new politics of transparency and reason, you’ll want to see Jeremy Hunt get a fair hearing and, if found guilty or breaching the Ministerial code, a proper and proportionate penalty. And if he is innocent, the cloud of suspicion over him dissipates.

But that means supporting tomorrow’s motion, regardless of Labour’s motives in pursuing it. Not because it is clever, or ‘strategic’ but because it is the right, the just, in fact the only honourable thing to do. An abstention, knowing that it leaves the Conservatives with a working majority, may be politically clever, in that by voting the motion down, they will be tarnished, but it merely preserves the status quo, and we will have allowed them to do it.

A vote for the motion, with a simple statement that we want to see the issue resolved for once and for all, and that we believe that transparency makes for better governance, will send out a message that we mean it when we call for a new, better politics. It is a long road for us to re-establish our reputation amongst the public, and this would be a very good first step.

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33 Comments

  • This whole affair is going to add to the twin stains of lack of trust and hypocrisy which the Lib Dems will need to spend years trying to shift in the perception of much of the public. Just like when open government was easy to support in opposition but tricky when it’s the NHS Risk Register, this is a question of long held principle. It is a simple case of whether there is a belief that only the PM decides whether Ministers have broken the Ministerial Code. If still in opposition the support for having a strong independent arbiter would be supported. If in opposition would Lib Dem MP’s vote to refer a Minister who had appeared to act in the way Hunt has?

    The answer is simple and we all know what it would be. To do otherwise now shows that far from the new approach promised during the 2010 election, the Parliamentary Party have in fact started to act in the manner of the Tories and Labour.

    Most members will forgive this, but for someone like me who is not tribal and will vote (or decide to withhold my vote) according to my conscience and the varying options this is just one more reason not to trust the Lib Dems in Westminster.

  • Lib Dem spokespeople are on a roll this morning. Apparently, Hunt handled BSkyB ‘by the book’ and his only ‘sin’ is in having a rogue SPAD and misleading parliament. Oh and it gets better – they won’t support Labour’s ‘opportunistic’ motion because of the Iraq War. No, I don’t get it either.

  • Agree with every word. I see this as a big opportunity for the LIbDems to gain huge credit by doing the honest/honourable thing, whilst simultaneously doing what, I believe, a majority of voters want.

  • Tell us Aaron – who has mounted this Iraq War defence? In case people seem to have forgotten, the Iraq vote in Parliament was won because of the support of most Tories. A few Tories rebelled, eg Ken Clarke, but the number of Labour rebels was much greater. This is an utterly false defence to the current position. Frankly, like Euro referenda in Ireland which go “the wrong way”, our MPs should reconvene their group meeting to get it right!

  • Don Foster in a totally bizarre performance on Radio 4 earlier. Jo Swinson not sounding any more convincing either.

  • When the last LibDem activist leaves the party, will they please switch off the lights.
    Good-bye to all my many friends

  • MacK (Not a Lib Dem) 13th Jun '12 - 8:57am

    Absolutely agree with the viewpoint of this thread. If Liberal Democrat MPs do not support Labour’s motion what little credibility they have for possessing integrity will be wiped out.. Whether or not they think Hunt should be referred to Sir Alex Allan is not a matter on which they can yet again sit on the fence. The answer is a binary. Tory MPs will be outraged anyway if Lib Dem MPs abstain. In which case Lib Dem MPs should have the courage to speak truth to power.

  • @Stephen Tall
    Correction, Hunt was a Tory problem it is now a coalition one. It will be the actions of Lib Dem MP’s that ensure he avoids a proper enquiry.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jun '12 - 9:00am

    Mark, your disappointment is understandable, but surely this is another example of real politik in operation. Our leader has an appearance before Leveson where he will point a finger at Murdoch’s undemocratic and malign influence. He could not stroll directly from the Strand to Parliament Square and vote against the Labour motion. Hence what is obviously a deal between PM and DPM.

    It is extraordinarily how important it will be that the Judge can see through all the dissembling that he has had to ‘suffer’ over the weeks of his Inquiry.

    No one has told a lie, but does anyone here believe that Murdoch didn’t use the veiled threat to unleash his power over 38% of the UK media to influence the decisions of Governments? Sir John Major yesterday spoke truth to power.

    Does anyone believe that Smith and Hunt didn’t orchestrate the dialogue with Fred?

    Does anyone believe that most tabloids (and probably broadsheets) were using illegal methods to gain intelligence? Or that the editors didn’t know how that information was being obtained?

    Sir John was right to point to this being a unique opportunity to restore power to the public’s elected representatives, one that if not grasped by Leveson will not come around for a considerable time.

    The Judge has been inscrutable, asking the odd supplementary and appearing to accept the replies as given in good faith. Will he see how the system really operates or will the truth be unimaginable to him – as it so often is to genuine good people?

    The responsibility he has is enormous. The debate tonight … a sideshow

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jun '12 - 9:01am

    @ Stephen Tall

    “I think Nick has called this right. Jeremy Hunt is a Tory problem, we shouldn’t make it ours. ”

    It would appear from Lib Dem member reaction that Nick Clegg has personally made this a Lib Dem problem. It may not be the biggest issue in the world but it appears to be yet another insistence on behaving differently to what is expected of lib Dem MPs which could be the straw to break the camels’ backs.

  • I can only think that Cameron has threatened to call a general election if the LIbDems vote with Labour. If the LibDems have such disdain for Labour (the Iraq war) why are they helping them to win the next election; if they (the LibDems) abstain on the ‘Hunt’ vote, the happiest politician around will be Edward Samuel Miliband.

  • Stephen, there are two reasons why you are wrong about this being the right call (that I can think of immediately).
    1 It is a matter of due process. People outside may be bored by “process not substance”, but when things do not follow a proper process, many decisions coming after can be distorted, as well as the current ones. This also matters because over many years the Libs and Lib Dems have pushed proper adherence to clean and fair laws (and admin, disciplinary etc processes) as the way to have a clean and transparent politics. This also allows, I think, to vote against the PM’s line.

    2 It is also a matter of deep politics on the issue itself. We are talking here about one organisation – NewsCorp – which has tried to influence policy in a rightwards direction. We have seen John Major’s evidence from yesterday that Murdoch called on him personally to take a more europhobe policy. We know from the past how NewsCorp organs have attacked the party eg Charles Kennedy’s head in a whisky bottle – whenever it appears we are doing well.

    Jeremy Hunt is not just “a Tory issue”. There is plenty of evidence so far that he tried to help Murdoch’s bid for the remainder of BSkyB, and for the sake of a plural media, of avoiding pressure in the future to change policy, and the obvious rightward drift of political ideas, of which Murdoch has arguably been the leading influence across the world, we should be ensuring that the Tories cannot again go down that line.

    At this precise moment there are really no greater political priorities for us. It IS a Lib Dem issue, and a vital one.If we flunk this one now, it will further reinforce the many who believe there is no point in voting “You’re all the same”. No new politics here.

  • The MP’s on the media have made it clear this morning. Iraq and pevious closeness to Murdoch means that there will never be a Labour motion that will get their support…

    Plurality in action. It’s a shame that they conveniently forget that more Labour MP’s voted against Iraq than Tories and that the Murdoch Press has supported Tories more often than not.

  • Are they really using the line that Labour are too close to Murdoch and the issue of Iraq!!??

    9% of Tory MPs voted against Iraq. 35% of Labour MPs voted against Iraq. I wonder how many Lib Dems would have voted against it if Clegg had been leader rather than Kennedy? As for Murdoch’s links – Labour are now distancing themselves from Murdoch, whereas the Tories are struggling to accept there’s much wrong with his empire.

    And, why would Cameron threaten an election? – the Tories are around 10% behind Labour in the polls. This, to me, strikes of desperation by Lib Dem MPs, who are petrified of the prospect of any disagreement that might cause an election. They know what the consequences are for them of an immediate general election.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jun '12 - 9:47am

    @Godfrey

    ” if they (the LibDems) abstain on the ‘Hunt’ vote, the happiest politician around will be Edward Samuel Miliband.”

    Why is this not SO obvious to the Deputy Prime Minister? Is there not some retired deputy sub editor from the Bognor Regis who might be persuaded to advise them on political PR?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 13th Jun '12 - 9:53am

    This speaks volumes for Clegg’s relationship with the PM. If he had gone to Cameron initially and insisted that at very least the whole Hunt matter should be considered independently particulary since a minister from his own party had given up his role on the matter because he had been caught expressing opinions on BSkyB – then Cameron would have had little alternative politically but to agree. Instead, he now leads a Party whose MPs are unable to take a view on the matter – and in effect allow Cameron to get his way. If Clegg is unable to stand up to Cameron on this I’m afraid the chances of him doing so on anything else are pretty minimal.

  • @Bill le Breton
    “Our leader has an appearance before Leveson where he will point a finger at Murdoch’s undemocratic and malign influence. He could not stroll directly from the Strand to Parliament Square and vote against the Labour motion. Hence what is obviously a deal between PM and DPM.”

    But following the logic of your argument he could then vote for the Labour motion.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jun '12 - 10:28am

    I have a simple question:

    Do Nick Clegg and our Liberal Democrat MPs believe that Jeremy Hunt should be referred to an independent investigation into ministerial behaviour?

    Hopefully someone here can help me with an answer to that.

  • The Tories can replace Hunt in the blink of an eye, noone will shed a tear in the Arts community, there are plenty of better Tory candidates for that job. Sure Cameron would be irritated to have his hand forced but he will have to make a better job of consulting his coalition partners next time.

    On the other hand – abstaining makes us look weak, duplicitous, it does reputational damage which we can’t afford. Clegg once again finds a way to snatch a huge defeat from the jaws of a small victory. How can we demand an investigation but refuse to vote for one?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 13th Jun '12 - 10:36am

    Peter Watson,

    The simple answer is, no, we can’t. That’s because none of us are MPs, and the Editorial Board is independent of the Party.

    However, given that every public statement I’ve seen from a Liberal Democrat Parliamentarian appears to support a reference to Sir Alex Allan, one might reasonably reach a conclusion that they do.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jun '12 - 10:52am

    @Mark Valladeres
    Surely everybody should know by now if Nick Clegg and our Liberal Democrat MPs believe that Jeremy Hunt should be referred to an independent investigation into ministerial behaviour, and if not then we should certainly know by the end of the debate because we will hear what they say and see how they vote. We seem to be short of public statements from Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians, and we should judge them by their actions not their words. Instead we seem to have leaks, briefings, counter-briefings, and no public commitment to any particular point-if-view. I don’t know how to describe this, but weak, duplicitous and hypocritical seem close enough.
    If Clegg and Lib Dem MPs believe Hunt should be referred to the watchdog they should say so, and vote for a motion calling upon the prime minister to do so.
    If Clegg and Lib Dem MPs believe Hunt should not be referred to the watchdog they should say so and vote against the motion.
    Instead we get … nothing. No openness, no principles, and no action.
    I am disappointed that over the years I have helped put this shower into the position they are now in. LDs were supposed to be different, but instead it just seems they’d never had the opportunity to show their true colours.

  • It’s so disheatening to see this particular gulf between the Parliamentary party and individual grassroots members/supporters. Like others have said before, it’s naive to mention the Iraq war at all in this. A very separate issue. How much more of a battering can the party take in public opinion? The Liberal Democrats have about 3 years before the country goes to the polls nationally, to convince millions about their values. By abstaining and perhaps ‘sticking it’ to Labour will impress no one and will further damage the party’s already bruised image. A coalition government is hardly ever an easy relationship, but the Jeremy Hunt affair transcends any debate about that. You owe it to the public to vote with Labour. If he clears his name, fair enough. But answers are needed!

  • The issue that I feel is not being addressed is the relationship between ministers and SPADS under the Ministerial Code. Civil Servants have to operate to modus operandi defined by a code of conduct. SPADs generally agreed modus operandi is the defense of their minister – am I being naive but should they not therefore be called Special Defenders? Only if they give advice to their ministers do they justify the title? Why is there not a rule that makes Ministers responsible for the words and actions of their SPADs and that the principle that a minister knows or ought to know of everything that is done by a SPAD on their behalf applied. It is not sufficient for Jeremy Hunt not to know what his SPAD was doing – the question is why did he not know.

  • Interesting PMQ’s Cameron quotes Allen saying he cannot add to the investigation. However, he does not state that the information available would clear Hunt or that there was no case to answer.

  • Although this is a very serious matter, I am sure Party members will be able to find amusement from this:

    A coupe of days back Labour tabled a parliamentary about Jeremy Hunt. Remember him? No, well, he’s the guy who sent lots of emails to Rupert Murdoch. Or his adviser did. And they weren’t to Rupert Murdoch, but his lobbyist. Or his son’s lobbyist. Anyway, he shouldn’t have done. Or at least most people think he shouldn’t have done. The exception being David Cameron, who decided it was politic to simply brush the emails under the Downing Street carpet and move on.

    And by and large, people have. Labour’s motion was a bit of a last-minute throw of the dice, a way of causing some final embarrassment before turning to something more interesting, like the total economic implosion of the European union, or the football.

    But that was before all those neurons and synapses and protoplasmic fibres inside the Clegg cranium started springing into life. The Lib Dems had two choices. They could support their Coalition partners in the motion, suck up a bit of yah-boo from the Labour benches, deposit some cash in the bank courtesy of the Prime Minister, and go about their business. Or, they could have made a really audacious play, stood on principle, voted for the motion, outflanked Labour, basked in the plaudits, and taken the backlash from their outraged Coalition partners on the chin.

    But no. They have effectively decided to abstain. The one course of action that guarantees the following: Ed Miliband will be handed a tactical triumph on a plate; the motion will lead the news bulletins; the Lib Dems will be hammered by Labour for not having the courage of their convictions; they will be hammered by their Coalition partners for betrayal; they will be hammered by their own supporters for not pushing all the way; the fractures in the government will widen; David Cameron will be forced to find a way of slapping them down to appease his enraged backbenchers; and instead of everyone going about their business, the issue will fester into the weekend and beyond.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danhodges/100164843/examining-the-mysteries-of-nick-cleggs-brain/

  • The Government has, apparently, defeated the Labour motion regarding Hunt by 38 votes. What a cowardly display by Liberal Democrat MPs. After such behaviour, if there was any likelihood that Labour would enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament I think I would tear up my Labour membership card.

  • Cameron can’t call a general election. How many more times do we have to point out that as a result of the coalition agreement the PM has lost the power to call a general election at a time of his/her choosing, through the fixed term parliament act. We now have fixed term parliaments and the next election will be on the first Thursday in May 2015 unless 2/3 of MPs vote otherwise.

    Coalition is difficult, but Mark, who I like and respect, is wholly unrealistic on what Lib Dem MPs – as opposed to the Lib Dem Party – can do. You can’t realistically vote against your colleagues in a coalition unless it has been agreed either in the coalition agreement or by both parliamentary parties. Applying Mark’s logic to say House of Lords reform would mean that Tory MPs who disagree with it should follow their principles and vote against, rather than abstaining – even though it’s an integral part of the coalition agreement.

    Some of our party members need to grow up about coalition.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 13th Jun '12 - 9:28pm

    Mickft,

    I’m entirely realistic about what is possible in coalition, and I also appreciate that the whole debate in Westminster was a game, with no impact on events. However, the public don’t get the game, and care less. So, they see our people talking about how an investigation is necessary, and then see us sit on our hands when a vote on the question comes along. And they’re the ones we need to persuade.

    And yes, it makes life difficult in the Coalition, and yes, it sets a precedent for future Liberal Democrat ministers who get into trouble. But calling for an enquiry is in everyone’s interest anyway. If Hunt is guilty, then it settles the matter. If innocent, he can continue in post without a cloud of suspicion.

    Sometimes, I fear that we can be too clever…

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Jun '12 - 10:42pm

    “You can’t realistically vote against your colleagues in a coalition unless it has been agreed either in the coalition agreement or by both parliamentary parties.”

    The Tories seem to have no trouble allowing their MPs to vote against their coalition colleagues (as some of them will do in the gay marriage vote).

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '12 - 10:11pm

    Mickft

    Coalition is difficult, but Mark, who I like and respect, is wholly unrealistic on what Lib Dem MPs – as opposed to the Lib Dem Party – can do. You can’t realistically vote against your colleagues in a coalition unless it has been agreed either in the coalition agreement or by both parliamentary parties.

    Of course you can. It is arguable that you are only under an obligation to vote with your coalition partners on areas of policy agreed when the coalition was formed. I think for the sake of stability it needs to go a little further than that, as government must be able to react to events. But it obviously ought not to go as far as one party introducing something entirely out of the blue and then forcing the other party to vote for it on the grounds of “loyalty”. And I would argue what we have here is not even that.

    What we have here is not government policy at all – government policy is not affected by one minister being investigated – and I think then morally bound to stand down. Of two of our Liberal Democrat ministers, one voluntarily stood down when he seemed to have acted improperly, another was actually stripped of his responsibilites for one single remark which suggested bias. The government did not fall because of that. If our party had acted as the Tories are now acting, we would have demanded that Vince cable stay in post as responsible for media takeovers, and demanded that the Tories support us in any vote forced on the issue by Labour, Instead, we meekly stood by while Vince Cable was publicly humiliated by Cameron. Now that humiliation has been multiplied many times by his replacement being shown as hugely more biased than Cable yet left in place. I do not think we signed up to a coalition agreement which said the Tories could do what they like do us and not only could we not complain, we would be expected to vote to support it.

    It seems to me that this is an issue outside government – it is one of party politics, and therefore one in which we have every right to act as a party and not as part of a coalition. The Conservatives have shown a quite disgraceful bias here, one which is in fact very much disloyal to the coalition spirit since it is saying they will let their own ministers behave with ethical standards far below those they demand of Liberal Democrat ministers. For thenm to acccuse US of “treachery” over this is, well I hope any decent person can see it brings only shame onto their party. If Cameron had any sense of deceny, he’d have forced Hunt to resign a long time ago, and if there was any decency and loyalty to the coalition spirit in the Conservative Party there’d be Conservative MPs joining us in calling for it.

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