Can Jeremy Hunt Prevent a Tsunami of Sleaze from Engulfing David Cameron?

26.4.12

What a disgrace the Tories are. Even on the election trail two years ago, it was clear that they were sucking up to Rupert Murdoch in an even more ingratiating manner than previous parties on the verge of unseating the existing government. Moreover, it was, I contend, only public outrage — over the revelation that the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by News of the World reporters — which, last July, definitively prevented the government from allowing the Murdochs and News International from upping their stake in BSkyB from 39 percent to 100 percent, and becoming an unrivalled titan on the British broadcasting scene with a dangerous and undemocratic monopoly.

Last July, when the police arrested Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who, conveniently, had subsequently become Cameron’s Chief of Communications, the scandal threatened to engulf David Cameron, and I wrote two articles, Why Would Anyone Trust David Cameron, As Police Arrest Andy Coulson? and Waiting for the Fall of David Cameron, which, I hoped, would reflect a major change in the public’s perception of the Prime Minister, and a widespread awareness of the extent of the Tories’ corruption.

That huge backlash did not emerge, however, as the public soon moved on, and Cameron survived. However, although It’s impossible to know whether political incompetence or sleaze plays the biggest role in discrediting corrupt and useless governments, it’s clear that the tide is turning against David Cameron, George Osborne, and the rest of the tired neo-liberal idiots — and Lib Dem stooges — who make up the Cabinet.

In the last few days, the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal has once more exposed David Cameron and his party to serious and damaging scrutiny over  the planned BSkYB takeover, and the extent to which the Tories are up to their eyeballs in sleaze and corruption. In response to the release of 160 pages of text messages and emails exchanged between News Corporation lobbyist Frédéric Michel and Adam Smith, the long-term special adviser to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – and others subsequently sent from Michel to James Murdoch and other senior News Corporation officials,  forwarding Smith’s remarks — Smith resigned yesterday, although Hunt is clinging on to his job.

As the Guardian described it, Smith admitted that “he had allowed the perception to develop that the Murdochs’ News Corp had ‘too close a relationship with the culture department,”” but Hunt “refused to resign, saying he had personally acted with scrupulous impartiality, and insisted he had been unaware of ‘the volume and tone’ of Smith’s contacts with News Corp.” He added that Smith had “overstepped the mark unintentionally.”

Given the extent of the high-level schmoozing between David Cameron and his Tory colleagues and the Murdochs and senior News Corporation personnel, as well as Cameron’s not uncoincidental hiring of Andy Coulson, it is beyond credibility that Hunt did not know what Smith was doing, and that his long-term special advisor was acting as some sort of rogue agent.

The Guardian has an excellent timeline here, exposing how the relationship between the Tories and News Corporation developed, and analysing the key developments in the proposed BSkyB take-over, and today Ed Miliband seized the initiative on Radio 4’s Today programme, asking, “Why is Jeremy Hunt still in his job? Because David Cameron has questions to answer, and Jeremy Hunt is, if you like, acting as a firewall. And if he goes the questions will then move to David Cameron’s conversations with Rebekah Brooks, with James Murdoch and others.” He added, “Does this matter for politics? I say it does matter because what matters is that you govern in the interests of the British people, not in [the interests of] a few rich powerful people who have access to you.”

He also said, “Frankly it beggars belief that he [Hunt] is still in his job because to believe he should stay you have to believe that his special adviser acted … as a lone wolf who spent six months in collusion with News Corporation, passing them information that was to be announced in the House of Commons, providing information about discussions with the regulator, providing information about what opposing parties were saying.” He added, “Some special advisers have resigned in the past and their bosses haven’t resigned. But that’s because their bosses didn’t know what they were up to. This is a completely different category.”

Miliband also said that the proposed £8bn takeover was “a central issue” for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and he thought it was “incredible that Jeremy Hunt hasn’t resigned and that David Cameron has kept him in his job.”

Whether Jeremy Hunt will survive is at present unknown. The Financial Services Authority (FSA) is investigating whether Smith’s emails to News Corporation “amounted to a breach of market abuse rules,” and Lord Justice Leveson has “rejected Hunt’s request to bring forward his evidence to the inquiry, meaning he will not give evidence until mid-May at the earliest, leaving open the possibility that the minister will dangle for several weeks.” As the Guardian described it:

Leveson told the inquiry that “although I have seen requests for other inquiries and other investigations” — a coded reference to the letter he had received from Hunt — “it seems to me that the better course is to allow this inquiry to proceed” on the timetable already intended. Politicians such as Hunt, but also Cameron and Tony Blair, are scheduled to appear between mid-May and mid-June.

With Labour pushing their initiative, demanding an investigation into three potential breaches of the ministerial code by Hunt, and Ed Miliband accusing the Prime Minister of “putting cronies before the country,” saying that a “shadow of sleaze” hangs over the government, David Cameron remains under pressure. He has already rejected an inquiry into the ministerial code, saying that Lord Justice Leveson has specifically “asked for no further inquiries to be launched,” but, as the Guardian also explained, Smith — and by extension his boss and the PM and everyone else who got too close to the Murdochs — must be in deep trouble over one particular email, dated January 24, 2011, in which Michel told James Murdoch that “he had managed to get some information on Hunt’s upcoming statement to parliament,” adding that this was “absolutely illegal!”

The next day, as the Guardian put it:

Hunt announced his intention to refer the takeover bid to the Competition Commission, but only after giving News Corp more time to address concerns about “potential threats to media plurality”. James Murdoch said the “illegal” reference had been a “joke” — but Labour said Murdoch got “the very words that Jeremy Hunt was going to use” before his statement to parliament.

I believe that Ed Miliband was right to describe Jeremy Hunt as a firewall protecting David Cameron from the kind of scrutiny that he should not be able to avoid, given his closeness to Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, and the meetings with Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch exposed in the timeline of events, and as I mentioned above, with the Tories now beginning to fall behind in the polls, the question that must be asked is whether the economic incompetence for which George Osborne is primarily responsible will deflect the attention of the British public from David Cameron’s extremely dubious proximity to the corruption of the phone-hacking scandal and the planned BSkyB takeover.

Perhaps we are in for a bumper summer of discontent, in which both men’s undeserved reputations for leadership, competence and probity are finally abandoned, and they are truly revealed to the public in general, as the generally unsympathetic Conservative MP Noreen Dorries explained to the BBC three days ago, as “two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”

Moreover, although Dorries’ comments seem to have contributed directly to a dip in popularity for Cameron and Osborne, she is not the only influential critic from within the Tories’ ranks. As the Guardian reported last week, in an article entitled, “David Cameron and George Osborne guilty of ‘sneering condescension,'” which purported to deal with a rebellion against plans for reform of the House of Lords, “Tory MPs are also making clear that deep flaws have been highlighted in Nos. 10 and 11 over the last few weeks as the Budget has unravelled.”

The author of the article, Nicholas Watt, explained that he had been told that three particular weaknesses had been identified.

The first was “[t]he ‘sneering condescension’ of Cameron and Osborne.” He reported that one Tory MP told him, “Everyone outside Dave and George’s magic circle is met by this sneering condescension — MPs, ministers, journalists. You saw that at PMQs [Prime Minister's Questions] with Dave’s put down to poor Douglas Carswell. This means that when the going gets tough there are few people out there to support them. Even little Handjob [new nickname for Osborne's former chief of staff and Tory MP Matt Hancock] has been looking a little sheepish recently.”

The second weakness was identified as a “[l]ack of [a] core set of beliefs.” On this, Watt was told, “Margaret Thatcher made mistakes as all prime ministers do. But once she had got rid of the Wets there were numerous MPs who would be there out fighting for her when the going got tough. The reason was simple: they knew she believed passionately in what she was doing and she had a vision. With this lot you don’t know what they really believe. So if Dave doesn’t really know what he thinks how can he expect anyone to stand up and shout about it? His vision just seems to be to make it to No. 10.”

And the third problem? “Laziness,” Watt was told. “They are lazy and life in Downing Street and the Treasury is all too cosy.”

Damning opinions indeed, but thoroughly accurate, and a sign, hopefully, that Cameron and Osborne’s days are numbered.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Paul Rigby wrote:

    Amen & good riddance

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Amen & good riddance to all of them, Paul. Good to hear from you.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Hi Andy. In my view the tories have always been a disgrace :-)

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re absolutely correct, Charmaine. My son was revising for a history test this evening, and studying the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, triggered by a rise in Poll Tax. Poll Tax? It reminded me — not that I ever forget — that just over 20 years ago, Margaret effing Thatcher thought she’d be able to get away with taxing everyone equally regardless of income. Within living memory, it was Wat Tyler and Richard II all over again …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Yep!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Actually, Andy, this is very mild, compared to the criminal activities that went on during the Thatcherite years. Wholesale financial criminality runnng into the billions, illegal arms deals, and connections with drug cartels. All carefully hidden. I wonder if the truth will ever come out.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui JS wrote:

    Unfortunately there’s been an epidemic of sleaze.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Graham and Mui — and everyone who’s liked and shared this. You’re right, of course, Mui, and it’s an epidemic that’s been growing since the 80s and Thatcher and Reagan. However, Graham, while I believe you’re right in many ways about the scale of the scandal of the Thatcher years, the legacy of that time is what afflicts us now, and what’s not mild at all is how destructive the Tories are, and how they will plunge more and more of us into economic misery if they get the chance.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Anita Gwynn wrote:

    oh I dare say. Money talks.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Shouts very loudly in your face, I think, Anita. And baying while doing so.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Sharon Askew wrote:

    Unfortunately Jeremy Hunt happens to be my local MP (not that I voted for him), although I have sent emails regarding Afghanistan, to which the replies were…for our security.. blar blar blar..to which after several, no replies at all as one obviously ran out of automated responses. Still, once he took over from Vince Cable, it was obvious he would be all for the Murdochs, never thought he’d get caught though..got a bit of a smirk on him that perhaps is going to be removed fairly soon, one way or another, as Cameron is only looking out for himself at the end of the day.
    I recently watched a four part documentary by Adam Curtis called “The Mayfair Set”, really worth watching.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sharon. Great to hear for you – and I hope you’l be getting a chance to vote for a new MP soon!
    Thanks for the mention of “The Mayfair Set.” I know Adam Curtis’ work, but I haven’t come across that particular project: http://archive.org/details/AdamCurtis_TheMayfairSet

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