Hunt survives calls for sleaze probe

Calls for an investigation into Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s handling of News Corporation’s failed BSkyB bid were rejected by MPs yesterday amid acrimonious scenes.

Conservatives saw off the challenge by Labour by 290 to 252 votes after Liberal Democrats abstained from the vote on the orders of party leader Nick Clegg.

The Deputy Prime Minister defended Mr Hunt when he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, despite refusing to back him in the Commons vote.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He told Lord Justice Leveson he thought Mr Hunt had given “a full, good and convincing account” to the inquiry about his handling of News Corp’s £8bn bid to take over the satellite broadcaster.

Labour wanted Mr Hunt to be referred to the Prime Minister’s independent adviser.

One of its MPs, Chris Bryant, even accused him of “lying” to Parliament by failing to disclose a memo which he sent to Mr Cameron days before being given responsibility for the BSkyB bid, in which he argued the case for News Corp to be allowed to buy up the 61 per cent of the satellite broadcaster which it did not already own.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman claimed there had been “a clear breach of the ministerial code”.

She told MPs the issues at stake were whether Mr Hunt misled Parliament about his contact with News Corp and whether he should have taken responsibility for his special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned after admitting exchanging information with a lobbyist close to Rupert Murdoch’s media company.

Last March, Mr Hunt said all correspondence relating to the BSkyB bid had been made public.

However, during yesterday’s debate, Labour claimed this had been proven wrong by previously-unseen emails and text messages revealed at the Leveson Inquiry.

Mr Hunt branded the allegations “disgraceful”, insisting any error in what he said about his correspondence had been inadvertent and he had corrected the record at the earliest opportunity.

He denied allowing his personal views to influence his “impartial handling” of the bid, telling MPs: “This was not an easy process, nor was it ever likely to command popular support; but the decisions taken were done so fairly.”

Mr Hunt was appointed to the quasi-judicial role after Business Secretary Vince Cable, initially responsible for it, was recorded declaring war on Mr Murdoch.

David Cameron has refused to refer Mr Hunt to his adviser, insisting there is no evidence he acted improperly.

Labour leader Ed Miliband told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions it was because he was scared his Ministerial colleague would not be cleared.

“It was the Prime Minister who decided to appoint the Culture Secretary to oversee the bid and the Prime Minister who is clinging on to him now in the face of all the evidence,” he said.

“It is no longer about the Culture Secretary’s judgment. It is about the Prime Minister’s judgment, which is so deeply flawed even his deputy won’t support him.”

Mr Clegg’s decision to tell his MPs not to join Tories in the No lobby has sparked renewed tensions within the coalition and fury among some Conservative backbenchers.

One MP – Swindon North’s Justin Tomlinson – was called back from honeymoon to bolster the number of Tories voting, while Conor Burns left his hospital bed to vote.

The resentment felt by some Tories was reflected in a Twitter message from the Bournemouth West MP who said: “Out of my hospital bed and on way to HoC for vote so our coalition partners can polish their consciences. Many of us won’t forget this.”

Comment: Page 12.