I am not keen to add more to the weight of blog commentary on Jeremy Hunt, and David Cameron’s handling of the business. I’ve made my views clear already using the medium of heavy-handed satire. However, there are one or two observations that might be worth making.
I won’t get in to the detail of the legality of Jeremy Hunt’s (and his office’s) actions in handling the BSkyB bid both before and after it was handed over from Vince Cable. That has been well handled elsewhere. Carl Gardner nails the position. David Allen Green has a powerful piece (and follow the links for the Financial services issue which is very important). And there is an important piece by Sturdy Alex which boils the key issue to its essence. It appeared from the Leveson evidence last week that Hunt believed that his duty of fairness in decision making applied primarily to the applicant, News Corp, and did not apply in a similar way to all interested parties. I merely note that I have yet to speak to any lawyer, including those with extensive experience in decision-making at local authority and government level, who believes that any decision which was reached by Hunt would have survived a judicial review. All agree that – at best – there was the appearance of bias and any decision taken would have been unlawful. Indeed so tainted would the decision have been with the appearance of bias that not one of the lawyers I have spoken to believes that a court would have allowed the decision – when struck down – to be handed back to Hunt. The court would have required it to go elsewhere. That legal analysis has not changed since the release of the original Michel messages, but has been strengthened by the release of subsequent correspondence from Hunt. That Hunt continues to feel that it was appropriate to correspond informally and privately with the head of the business he was charged with reaching a decision in relation to (never mind his informal and private correspondence with the lobbyist for the business, never mind his special adviser’s informal and private correspondence with that lobbyist (including the early release of information) ) is to me inexplicable. It indicates arrogance or ignorance. If the latter, then Hunt appears to be too stupid to be a cabinet minister.
The handling of the matter by David Cameron, though, is noteworthy.
On the day the Michel texts and emails were released indicating (at least) numerous private informal communications between Hunt’s special adviser and Fred Michel, including (it appears) the release of commercially sensitive information and other information prior to it entering the public domain or being formally released, Cameron could have said that this indicated a problem with the decision-making process, he was unaware of these communications, and invited Hunt to resign. But he didn’t.
Now, of course, the notion that Hunt might do the honourable thing and resign was something that – we learned last week- Hunt had considered himself. Following the release of the Michel communications Hunt took soundings from his department and his conscience, considered whether or not he should resign, and – after much detailed careful consideration – resigned his special adviser Adam Smith, the noblest of them all, having assured him (the night before) that he wouldn’t have to go. Indeed, Hunt’s evidence last week was that Smith was resigned by Hunt because everyone (apart from Hunt) thought Smith should go. Greater love hath no man than this: that he should lay down his friend for his career. But Hunt stayed. And Cameron did not force his hand.
Instead when Adam Smith gave evidence we learned that Cameron had received a minute from Hunt – toned down from an earlier draft (it appears at the instance of Adam Smith) – urging the bid from News Corp for BSkyB to progress. Cameron could have indicated that the draft was stronger than he was aware. Cameron could have indicated that he was unaware of the strength of this private view (which Hunt claimed was later hidden away in a mysterious hidden compartment of his mind) that awareness of this gave him cause for concern and he would have handled things differently, and – perhaps – invited Hunt to resign. But he didn’t. He saw no need to reflect on Hunt’s handling. He saw no need to reflect on his own handling.
And then we learned that on the day Hunt was given the decision-making power he had sent a private message to James Murdoch, congratulating him on passing a European legal hurdle and noting only Ofcom to go (not a comment on an addition to the bonfire of the quangos it seems, but a reference to the response awaited from Ofcom on the issue). At this stage Cameron could have said that he was unaware of this text. That if he had known that such private comments were made on the morning he had given responsibility he would have been concerned and passed responsibility elsewhere. And he could have invited Hunt to resign. But he didn’t. Instead, Cameron exonerated Hunt later in the day. He indicated by implication that he would not have done anything differently – even had he been aware of this message.
So instead we learned that Hunt had numerous personal private communications with James Murdoch and Fred Michel – some initiated by them, some initiated by Hunt – during the period when he was charged with the power to determine whether or not to refer the bid to the Competition Commission. Any one of these was legally problematic. Cumulatively they confirm any decision could have been successfully challenged by the other interested parties. Cameron could have indicated that he was unaware of these, that Hunt had gone too far. He could have invited Hunt to resign. But he didn’t. He exonerated Hunt. He has indicated that he sees no need to refer the matter to the adviser on the ministerial code. He has said that Hunt acted “fairly” and “wisely”.
So Cameron believes it is fair and wise for the decision-maker to give no instructions to his staff as to how to handle relations with the applicant. Cameron believes that it is fair and wise for the decision-maker to communicate privately and informally with one side in a case that is being decided. Cameron believes that it is fair and wise for the decision-maker to state public and private support for a particular decision when you are charged with deciding that case. Cameron believes that it is fair and wise for the decision-maker to send informal texts of congratulation to the party whose case he is deciding.
Perhaps someone should ask Cameron if he believes that any decision that Hunt could have reached on whether to pass the bid to the Competition Commission would have survived a judicial review. If he believes Hunt acted fairly and wisely it appears that he did. And if he genuinely believes that any decision Hunt could have reached would have withstood legal challenge given everything that has been revealed then Cameron is too stupid to be Prime Minister.
By not acting earlier Cameron has tied himself to Hunt. He has raised questions about his own decision-making in giving the power to decide to a person whose public and private views were so clear. He has approved the conduct of Hunt, and of his office in their handling of the case. Cameron’s misjudgment in backing Hunt has created more problems for himself, and over the past few weeks he has had a number of opportunities to extricate himself from these problems.
But then Cameron’s judgment is an ongoing issue.
He is the man who appointed Andy Coulson, despite the phone hacking scandal.
He is the man who gave Hunt the power to decide the BSkyB bid, despite the public and private utterances he was aware of.
He is the man who has backed Hunt again and again and again, despite the steady revelation of material from the Leveson inquiry.
This man who has demonstrated atrocious judgment again and again and again is the Prime Minister. Is he fit for that office?