30 Apr 2012

Speaker compounds Cameron’s Hunt problems

The prime minister couldn’t have been clearer, repeating on the Marr programme yesterday that he saw the Leveson inquiry as the right place for Jeremy Hunt’s immediate future to be decided.

Speaker Bercow appears to think there’s a case for the opposition argument that David Cameron has got that very wrong and should be referring the case to Sir Alex Allan, his independent adviser on the ministerial code of conduct. So The speaker has effectively summoned David Cameron to the Commons to answer questions from Ed Miliband and other MPs on the subject, forcing the PM to to abandon local election campaigning.

I must admit I didn’t think Speaker Bercow would dare. It’s pre-election, campaigning going on everywhere. Even summoning the PM will be seen as an implied rebuke for the PM’s understanding of the rules on ministerial responsibility.┬áTory MPs are livid.

What will have weighed with the speaker is the fact that parliament is about to rise so there is no prime minister’s questions for two weeks (a recess around the Queen’s speech). The support of two ex Cabinet secretaries over the weekend for the view that Alex Allen should be looking into Jeremy Hunt will have helped the speaker weigh in on Ed Miliband’s side, as will the call from the Tory public administration committee chair, Bernard Jenkin, for an Alex Allan inquiry. Some old images of Sir Alex here that surfaced when he was appointed chairman of the joint intelligence committee 5 years ago.

Could the government have thought this all through a bit better? Is today’s misfortune home-made or unavoidable? The PM and the Cabinet secretary appear to have had two governing thoughts: hold on to Jeremy Hunt and avoid losing control of the process.

To that end, they decided to avoid asking Sir Alex Allan to look into the whole matter, just as they decided not to let him have a look into matters when Liam Fox’s future as defence secretary was in doubt. Independent inquiries can drag on and go down all sorts of routes.

Sir Alex would want to question Adam Smith, the former special adviser who sent the chummy emails and texts to BSkyB, something the Leveson inquiry will not do. Better to keep matters under the grip of Sir Jeremy Heywood and No. 10 with a concession of a public moment of reckoning for Jeremy Hunt at Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry (an exercise that would be relatively low risk because, as Lord Justice Leveson told Sir Jeremy Heywood on the phone last Tuesday afternoon, Leveson did not see it as his role to adjudicate on a minister’s future).

So David Cameron ends up in the awkward position of saying, on Marr yesterday and presumably at 3.30 in the Commons today, that he is waiting to see what is produced and said at Leveson before deciding on whether to refer Mr Hunt to Sir Alex Allan when he could simply let Sir Alex start looking into the whole matter now.

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