A Labour motion accusing Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt of breaching the ministerial code during the proposed BSkyB takeover is defeated.
MPs voted by 290 to 252 to reject the motion calling for Mr Hunt to be investigated over alleged breaches of the code. The Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners were expected to abstain.
During the debate, the culture secretary was forced to deny Labour claims that he had lied to parliament. He told the Commons he may have inadvertently misled MPs when he said he had released all of his correspondence relating to the takeover.
But he argued that he had corrected his statement at the earliest opportunity and insisted there was a difference between inadvertently misleading MPs and lying to them. Labour MP Chris Bryant said he had “a great deal of evidence” Mr Hunt had lied.
It is usually out of order for MPs to directly accuse one another of lying, but the Speaker said Mr Bryant had not broken any rules because the motion was considering whether Mr Hunt had deliberately misled parliament.
The opposition wants David Cameron to refer Mr Hunt’s handling of News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB to his adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan.
Mr Cameron told the Commons that Sir Alex had concluded he could not “usefully add” to the case. Sir Alex wrote in a letter to Mr Cameron: “The fact that there is an on-going judicial inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in this case though I remain available should circumstances change or new evidence emerge.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband asked Mr Cameron: “Isn’t the truth, the reason you won’t refer him to the independent adviser, because you are scared the culture secretary won’t be cleared?”
Mr Hunt told the inquiry he had acted “scrupulously fairly” when he was judging the bid. His appearance followed the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith after emails were released by the inquiry revealing his close contact with News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel.
A senior Liberal Democrat source told the Press Association that the party had not endorsed Mr Cameron’s decision on referring Mr Hunt to Sir Alex and “therefore we won’t support it on the floor of the House”.
The source added: “There should be another way of looking at these things, if that’s Alex Allan or someone else. Leveson has not addressed these questions.”
Labour’s motion says Sir Alex should investigate whether Mr Hunt breached the ministerial code by misleading parliament about his role in the bid for BSkyB and by failing to take responsibility for the actions of his special adviser.
The PM announced at PMQs that Alex Allan has written to him to say: "I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in this (the Jeremy Hunt) case." Well, that's not quite what Alex Allan wrote. Read more from Political Editor Gary Gibbon.
But the Liberal Democrat source accused the party of hyprocrisy, saying that Labour had not taken such a strong line on special advisers when it was in power.
The motion is unlikely to be passed, but it increases pressure on the prime minister, who appears before the Leveson inquiry on Thursday.
On 31 May, Mr Hunt told the inquiry he had considered resigning, but had decided against this. He conceded that messages he exchanged with former BSkyB chairman, James Murdoch, had been inappropriate.
The inquiry was established by Mr Cameron following allegations of phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World.
Mr Hunt, a Conservative, was appointed by the prime minister in 2010 to rule on News Corporation’s bid for full ownership of BSkyB. He had expressed public support for the bid in the past, but both he and Mr Cameron say he handled the issue impartially.
Mr Hunt replaced the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable, who was stripped of his responsibility for the BSkyB issue after being secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation. News Corporation withdrew its bid in July 2011 at the height of the phone hacking furore.