27 April 2012
Last updated at 10:43 ET
Jeremy Hunt has said he will hand over private emails with his special adviser about the BSkyB takeover bid to the Leveson Inquiry amid pressure for a separate probe into his conduct.
The culture secretary said the details would “vindicate” his position that he had acted with “total integrity”.
Labour and some Lib Dems want a separate probe into whether he breached the ministerial code of conduct.
Labour leader Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of “organising a cover up”.
On Wednesday, Mr Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith resigned over what he admitted was an inappropriately close relationship with News Corporation during its planned takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Mr Hunt has said he did not know about the extent and tone of the contact between the media giant and Mr Smith – who had allegedly been feeding it inside information.
He insists he had acted impartially throughout, in keeping with what was meant to be his “quasi-judicial” role.
‘Great deal to hide’
But under the ministerial code of conduct, Mr Hunt is responsible for the actions of his special advisers – a fact which has fuelled calls for a separate inquiry into his conduct.
Labour say the government is sweeping the issue of Mr Hunt’s conduct under “the big carpet” of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics – before which the minister is expected to appear next month.
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Nick Clegg says “we need to get to the truth” of the culture secretary’s handling of the BSkyB bid.
But he is backing the prime minister’s insistence that the best way to do that is for Jeremy Hunt to be cross examined at the Leveson Inquiry having provided evidence of his and his office’s contacts with News Corp.
Mr Miliband said: “Every day David Cameron looks more like a prime minister organising a cover up rather than standing up for the public.
“First he refuses to sack Jeremy Hunt despite the weight of evidence against him.
“Now, despite all-party calls to do so, he refuses even to ask the independent adviser on ministerial interests to examine whether Mr Hunt broke the ministerial code.”
“Instead of hiding behind Leveson” Mr Cameron should “show his responsibility as PM and make sure the ministerial code is imposed,” added the Labour leader.
He accused the prime minister of using the culture secretary “as a cover for himself”, saying that if Mr Hunt resigns, the spotlight would turn on Mr Cameron’s role.
Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has written to former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell – who retired in December and is now a crossbench peer in the House of Lords – to ask whether he was happy with the decision to ask Mr Hunt to adjudicate over the BSkyB bid.
The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson said No 10 had hinted that Mr Cameron, as the final arbiter of the ministerial code, would judge Mr Hunt’s future after he is cross-examined at Leveson and the correspondence with his former aide is published.
And Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg rejected calls for a separate inquiry into Mr Hunt’s conduct saying that it would lead to “crossed wires” and that Leveson was the best forum to get to the truth.
“Let’s get to the bottom of what happened and what didn’t happen by hearing what Jeremy Hunt has to say before Lord Leveson,” he told Nick Robinson.
Mr Hunt said on Friday he would make the information available to the Leveson inquiry and he was “confident they will vindicate the position that I handled the BSkyB merger process with total integrity”.
There have been growing calls for the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, to investigate whether there has been any breach of the ministerial code after details of the contact between Mr Smith and News Corp emerged in a series of emails seen by the Leveson Inquiry.
Leading Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin has urged the move, saying it was “extraordinary any special adviser should have anything to do with a secretary of state’s quasi-judicial role in a matter such as a takeover bid”.
Business Secretary Vince Cable – who was stripped of responsibility for the BSkyB bid after telling undercover reporters he had “declared war” on the Murdoch empire – refused to be drawn on whether there should be a separate inquiry after Mr Hunt has given evidence to the Leveson inquiry.
He told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “He’s made it very clear that he wishes to state his side of the story.
“It’s absolutely right that he should be given that opportunity as soon as possible – and I think that’s the key requirement at the present time.”
The culture secretary should refer the case himself to the watchdog, Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt said, adding that Mr Cameron should not have “put him in the position” of having to adjudicate on the bid given his colleague’s previously supportive comments about News Corporation.
‘Issue of timing’
Sir Christopher Kelly, the head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told the World At One that having Leveson consider the matter was just one of a number of options available to the prime minister.
“There are clearly issues with the timing of that but it is difficult to argue that an inquiry with all the forensic arrangements available to it…will not be able to look at these issues adequately and properly.
“If there is any doubt that the Leveson inquiry will be able to look at aspects of the ministerial code and give advice to the PM about what to do than that should be clarified.”
No 10 said the prime minister had full confidence in how Mr Hunt had performed his duties and believed “it is right for the (Leveson) inquiry to run its course”.
But The Times reported Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had discussed with Lord Leveson whether the conduct of Mr Hunt and his special adviser would be addressed in his final report and that sources had told them that it was “perfectly possible” that it would not be included.