By Paul Goodman
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Labour Cabinet Ministers whose resignations were forced during the Blair years – and there were rather a lot of them – weren't usually cornered with a smoking gun or despatched by a golden bullet. An inquiry into Peter Mandelson found that he hadn't acted improperly in relation to the Hindujas; another into David Blunkett didn't conclude that he'd sought special favours for a nanny; Stephen Byers rode out the storm over Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith. What made their positions impossible was that (rightly, in most cases) these were thought to be impossible: perception was everything. In short, Tony Blair yielded to pressure – and fired them.
This is the position Ed Miliband and a big slice of the media are striving to put David Cameron in over Jeremy Hunt and the BSkyB bid. And even more than usual, nearly everyone concerned has a vested interest. The liberal left, in the form of the Guardian and much of the BBC, wants the brash, antipodean-flavoured, America-friendly and populist culture which Rupert Murdoch brought to Fleet Street kept out of television (and is succeeding): it wants a monopoly. The traditional right, in the form of Murdoch's newspaper rivals at the Telegraph and Mail, is only a little less hostile. Mr Hunt is a marked man.
This is because he was "sympathetic" to the BSkyB bid, in the word he himself used yesterday, going on to add that he was not, however, "supportive". It isn't hard to dismiss this claim as a distinction without a difference. Did the Culture Secretary not go against the instincts of his officials, and write to the Prime Minister about the bid? Did he not exchange friendly texts with James Murdoch over the European Commission competition decision? Did he not tell the Commons that all documents concerned with the case had been published when they hadn't? If the answer to these questions is to be summed up in one word, then that answer is "yes".
It is undeniable that the bid was mishandled by the Culture Secretary and his Department: when Downing Street itself insists that "lessons will be learned", and the Cabinet Secretary writes round to Departments "clarifying" how quasi-judicial decisions should be carried out in future, you know that there's been a big, big problem. Poor Adam Smith, Mr Hunt's former Special Adviser, should never have been put in the position of being a link man with the Murdoch operation, least of all without proper guidance. It is a decision that the Culture Secretary clearly regrets deeply – almost, he told Leveson yesterday, to the point of resignation.
Had the decision gone the other way, it would surely have been vulnerable to judicial review. But there is a difficulty for Mr Hunt's critics with all this – namely that his easy communications with Team Murdoch mostly took place either before he was given responsibility for the bid or after the decision was made (and his error in the Commons was speedily corrected). His central case – that he acted properly in relation to his responsibilites for the bid, and at times made decisions which were resented by NewsCorp – has not been disproved: little coverage has been given to that last detail this morning.
All in all, if Ministers should be sacked for making mistakes, then the Culture Secretary should go – but in such an event a significant proportion of Ministers, future and present, should rightfully follow: Mr Hunt would scarcely be alone. But if they should go only when serious wrongdoing has been proved, this can't be said to have happened in the Culture Secretary's case – whatever Mr Murdoch's enemies on the left or rivals on the right may say to the contrary. The Prime Minister was quick to trumpet that conclusion yesterday, and will now hope that the whole business can be swiftly forgotten.
But it won't be – or at least Mr Cameron can't rely on such an outcome. This is because the Leveson Report is certain to criticise Mr Hunt, and if it does so forcefully his position may become impossible. So while the Culture Secretary will probably survive in post for the duration of the Olympics, his uncertain prospects afterwards leave the Prime Minister's reshuffle calculations awry. How can Mr Cameron safely move Mr Hunt to another Department – assuming he wishes to do so – while Leveson's conclusions hang in the air until the autumn? The Culture Secretary will feel no happier than the Prime Minister about this prospect.
And he is an able, bright, sharp, personable Minister of real ability. There are fewer of these around than there might be. He would be a loss to the Government, and I hope he stays and prospers. The explanation of his Murdoch troubles seems to me to be simple at heart. He wanted to have his cake and eat it. He wanted both to conduct the bid properly (which he did) and remain on good terms with Empire Murdoch – believing throughout that BSkyB's venture was justified. The tension between those aims conjured up his woes.