A Quasi-Disgraced Government
The truth of the Hunt affair is buried in a lot of waffle.
After the bunting has come down and the union jacks have become just colourful litter, after the last cake on the last stand has been sold, cut-price for being as stale as our growth forecast, after the last drop of champagne has been drained from the crystal flutes and we begin to count the cost to our economy of the extra holiday, questions will persist over the Jeremy Hunt affair.
A lot of these questions have been obscured by rather esoteric debates about the Ministerial Code (which, there is no doubt in my mind, Jeremy Hunt has broken in a variety of ways). They have been twisted by a general lack of understanding of his position as adjudicator of the BskyB bid; smoke and mirrors. It is easy to clarify the situation with a simple hypothetical. Let’s transfer the scenario to a judicial setting – an area in which everyone has an instinctive understanding of propriety.
There is a huge legal dispute, involving ACME plc., before a judge. Halfway through the trial, the presiding Judge Cable is secretly recorded expressing anti-ACME feelings. He is immediately sacked.
The chosen replacement is Judge Hunt. Judge Hunt has expressed both publicly and privately, that he is a huge fan of ACME. Judge Hunt has written to the man responsible for allocating cases to judges, to say that he thinks a decision against ACME would be a disaster. He has expressed serious worry that “we might screw this up”. On the very morning of the day he is appointed, Judge Hunt has messaged the ACME point-man responsible for the case and congratulated him on clearing a legal hurdle.
Judge Hunt continues to chat regularly on the phone with the CEO of ACME throughout the case, despite legal advice that it’s inappropriate. Neither recalls precisely what was said. He continues to message the ACME point-man throughout the case – a total of 532 communications. He apologises to him and asks for understanding: “hope you understand why we have to have the long process”. He expresses longing to have a coffee with him “like the good old days” when “this is over”. On the day of a key decision, he is told “well played” and replies “Thanks think we got right solution!”
Meanwhile, his private Clerk is leaking confidential information to ACME throughout the case, including key decisions before Judge Hunt has announced them. Thousands of communications. Judge Hunt will later claim that he asked his Clerk to have this contact, gave his Clerk no parameters for this contact, but that it is not really his fault.
There’s more. The man who decided to replace Judge Cable with Judge Hunt is also a big ACME fan. He owes them big for their support in securing his position. He has secret meetings with the Head of ACME. He goes horse-riding with ACME executives. He has a close relationship with the ACME CEO. He has hired an ex-ACME man to be his Head of Communications. As a matter of fact, he discusses the case with top ACME people at a private ACME Christmas dinner, only two days after appointing Judge Hunt.
That’s the situation in a nutshell. Do you trust the decision? Do you think the necessary propriety has been observed?
Hunt points to the fact that he made life quite difficult for BSkyB during the process. But can this not be explained simply by his Special Advisor’s email to Michel in which he says that JH will need time to “create some political cover”? Can it not be explained by his own comment at a meeting with BSkyB where he says “It was essential to a robust outcome that the SoS act reasonably in coming to a decision” which can be loosely translated as “I have to be seen to give you a hard time or we’re going to get judicially reviewed”?
He bleats that he has “compartments” in his mind which, the moment he was appointed, isolated his personal views. So why did he continue calling, emailing, texting BSkyB dozens of times a week throughout the process, the rational observer may ask? “I wanted to be courteous” comes the response. Well, if Courteous Bending Over Backwards Gymnastics is an event in the upcoming Olympics, 532 text messages ought to secure Team GB their first medal. And if Pole-Vaulting Over All Propriety is an event, Hunt is going for the Gold.
His apologists point out that Hunt may have said the wrong thing, but actually did nothing wrong. Or to put it more simply, when it came to Vince Cable the paramount factor is what he said – not what he did. But when it came to Jeremy Hunt – ignore what he said and look at what he did.
He left himself with no discretion on the BSkyB bid, Cameron says. I beg to differ. When it came to the absolute key decision – of whether to refer the bid or accept NewsCorp undertakings – Hunt made precisely the choice expected of him.
Let us not forget that, as the telephone-hacking scandal exploded over the heads of this poisonous posse like a rancid piñata, forcing NewCorp to withdraw their bid, Hunt was about to wave it through. And that, ultimately, is the only action of real relevance.
All’s well that ends well, you might say. The scandal was exposed in time, the bid withdrawn, the horse returned to pastures new, the laptop retrieved from the bin, the celebrities compensated, Hugh Grant’s hair looked gorgeous and everyone had a good time. So, why does all this matter?
It matters because Cameron is meant to be the adjudicator of first instance when it comes to the behaviour of ministers. And he looked at this affair – this affair which would cause Niccolò Machiavelli to do a double take – and concluded within 20 minutes that everyone had behaved marvellously. Moreover, everyone had behaved so obviously marvellously that it did not even merit further investigation.
By doing so, he sets a precedent. He sets the standard for other ministers, for MPs, for lobbyists, for the entire machine which governs our everyday lives. He puts his seal of approval on a limbo-dancing government whose only motto appears to be “how low can you go”.
I leave you with a brief extract from CAMERONCAM – a series of video blogs made by our then-future-soon-to-be-ex Prime Minister. The subject of this one is how he intends to clean up politics.