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Thursday, May 31, 2012 

The hunt will go on.

When the news came through last night that Andy Coulson had been charged with perjury, you can't help but suspect that Jeremy Hunt sighed with relief. The already slight chance that he would today be sacked or referred to the cabinet secretary/Sir Alex Allen following his evidence to the Leveson inquiry was almost entirely extinguished. After all, for two of David Cameron's acquaintances to be charged with a serious criminal offence is unfortunate; three begins to look like carelessness. Amusing as it is that Rebekah Brooks and her husband are facing the beak over perverting the course of justice, it's ever so slightly more damaging that Coulson was allegedly telling lies to a Scottish court while still Cameron's director of communications. Hunt therefore simply has to stay: not only is he continuing to provide cover for Cameron himself, whose judgement looks more and more suspect by the hour, he's also now doing much the same for George Osborne.

One of the key new pieces of information disclosed today was that within minutes of Robert Peston disclosing that Vince Cable had said he had declared war on Rupert Murdoch, Hunt was on the phone to James Murdoch in a call arranged earlier in the day, Hunt having already texted Murdoch junior to congratulate him on the European Commission saying the BSkyB bid could go ahead. Whether or not Murdoch had an inkling about what was coming or not isn't clear, although it's long been rumoured that the source of Peston's story was Will Lewis, formerly the Torygraph's editor-in-chief and shortly to join News Corp's Management and Standards Committee. No doubt having been subjected to a typically Murdochian haranguing from James, Hunt straight after emailed both Andy Coulson and George Osborne, saying he was "seriously worried we are going to screw this up". 48 minutes later, Osborne texted Hunt saying "I hope you like the solution!"

Hunt almost certainly did: he had after all written a memo complaining bitterly about how Cable had referred the BSkyB bid to Ofcom, and how James was, unusually for him, "pretty furious about it". Hunt's entire memo was just about as partisan as it gets, and expressed effective contempt for those opposed to the takeover. The original draft also gives the game away in two key ways: first in how he worries that it will put them in the wrong place politically, which he today claimed was a reference to the usual Conservative values of belief in free markets rather than how they were in danger of royally pissing off their friends at News International, and secondly in how it makes clear that News Corp viewed the takeover as effectively the move to Wapping all over again, giving them full spectrum dominance of the UK media. Why else would the takeover bid have been named Project Rubicon, otherwise?

Despite all this evidence of his own acute bias, including a phone call he made to Murdoch after being specifically advised that he should not make such contact with him, Hunt was duly passed the task of exercising "quasi-judicial" oversight on the takeover, a concept which prior to 2010 Hunt freely admits he had not encountered. Now the battle of contradictions begins: Hunt on the record stated that he could not have wished for a more diligent special adviser than Adam Smith, repeatedly praising him for his hard work, and said that he didn't believe there was a minister who had worked more closely with their SpAd. Smith knew what Hunt knew, and knew what he had to be careful about, and yet at the same time Fred Michel, News Corp's lobbyist, was bombarding Smith with emails and texts and getting plenty back in return. Hunt claims to have been shocked when the full extent of their contact was exposed and claimed he knew nothing of it, despite having been in personal contact with both Michel and James Murdoch during the same period, both of whom were saying much the same things to him as Michel had to Smith. Either he worked incredibly closely with Smith as he said, or he didn't. We didn't get a proper answer as to which it was.

Come the day after James Murdoch's evidence to Leveson, and it was clear someone was for the chop. It wasn't going to be Hunt though, oh no. Sure, he considered resigning himself, but "it wouldn't have been appropriate". Instead his incredibly close adviser had to sacrifice himself, despite the fact that Hunt accepts he has ultimate responsibility for his SpAd's actions and under the ministerial code that means that he should also go. David Cameron has for his part decided to completely ignore this aspect of the code, just as he decided it was Gus O'Donnell who should investigate Liam Fox over Adam Werritty, the result being an completely inadequate report, rather than commissioning a independent and in-depth investigation by the actual person employed to oversee the code.

Inept then doesn't even really begin to describe the coalition as it stands at the moment. At its best (bear with me) it's just cynical, whether it's Hunt claiming that he didn't know phone hacking was "a volcano waiting to erupt", or the Treasury today leaking midway through Hunt's evidence that the proposed cap on tax-deductible charity donations would be dropped, something that seems to have succeeded as the BBC are running it as their top story tonight. At worst, it's so stuck in the mire that all it can do is just hope that the focus shifts elsewhere, as a further eruption in the Eurozone might provide. In any other government Hunt would and should be finished. It's due to David Cameron's utter weakness just two years into office that Hunt is still culture secretary tonight.

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