THE Hunt saboteurs were out in force at Westminster yesterday but their quarry eluded them.
At least for now. David Cameron was forced to cut short his campaigning for Thursday's council elections to return to the Commons and answer an urgent question from Labour's Ed Miliband about the embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's handling of the controversial BSkyB bid.
The Prime Minister arrived in the Chamber in belligerent mood and, fending off hostile questioning for nearly an hour, continued to insist he had "seen no evidence" that Mr Hunt had acted improperly.
Mr Cameron made the seemingly reasonable point that the separate parliamentary investigation into the matter, being demanded by the opposition, risked cutting across the Leveson inquiry, which can take sworn evidence from ministers and is "many times more robust". However, as Lord Leveson himself made abundantly clear on Friday, it is no part of his brief to decide whether ministers acted outside the ministerial code. Wisely, the retired judge does not wish to be dragged into party politics. Besides, it may be several weeks before Mr Hunt is summoned to appear and this issue will hang over his department like a bad smell until it is resolved.
Under these circumstances the opposition is justified in asking Mr Cameron to refer the issue to the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan. It is for him to adjudicate on whether the Culture Secretary broke the ministerial code by leaking vital information to News Corporation two days ahead of a Commons statement. Mr Hunt is also accused of failing to honour an undertaking to publish all relevant communications with News Corp relating to the take-over and of allowing a "back channel" of influence from News Corp into his department.
The Prime Minister may regret his rather flippant dismissal of the first of these allegations. Leaking market-sensitive information is not only a breach of the code but, as the email in question put it, "absolutely illegal". The other two allegations are less clear. The Government could argue that producing every shred of communication between Mr Hunt's department and News Corp required disproportionate effort and that lobbyists and special advisers often exaggerate what they have. This would make Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned last week, the equivalent of the News of the World "rogue reporter".
This story is not going to go away. Indeed the Culture Media and Sport select committee's report into phone hacking is due out today.
Mr Cameron is paying a high price for hanging on to his Culture Secretary but the price of losing him might have been higher for it would put the spotlight on Downing Street and Mr Cameron's "embarrassing" (his adjective) attendance at the dinner party thrown by News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, at the height of the controversy over the BSkyB bid in December 2010. Even if the Prime Minister was not directly involved in the decision, it adds to the impression that his Government is more interested in helping the rich and powerful than the hard-pressed electorate.
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