If the Government loses Jeremy Hunt so close to the Olympics it would be a real body blow to their credibility. But the avoidance of that embarrassment isn't a reason that he should be allowed to stay and nor is the demand for the truth motivated by a desire to cause it. It is that truth which will determine whether he stays or has to join everyone else in the Olympic cheap seats.back
I have had a sense of déjà vu this week. For much of September and October last year the Labour Party and the media were asking serious questions about the conduct of Liam Fox and his phantom adviser Adam Werritty. Now concerns are being raised about the conduct of Jeremy Hunt and his very real but sacrificial now ex-adviser Adam Smith.
The Government seems to be developing a standardised play book of behaviour for these sorts of crises. First we get denials that anything is untoward. Then evidence to the contrary emerges. Then the under-fire Secretary of State gives a statement to Parliament which does nothing at all to address the fundamentals but is backed by well-whipped Parliamentary choreography. Finally, a Prime Minister content to let the air of wrongdoing pervade his government denies legitimate and necessary inquiries to be launched.
The parallels between the Fox-Hunt cases are unavoidable. When the going got tough for Dr Fox the Tories tried to paint Adam Werritty as a ‘Walter Mitty’ figure. Similarly, Adam Smith has been painted as a lone ranger. Anyone who has worked in government knows that it is laughable to think an adviser could have correspondence of that frequency, detail and sensitivity without their boss knowing anything, or possibly guiding them. A Special Adviser is the one person in the world who never needs to book a time to see their Minister – it’s easier for a Special Adviser to see the Minister than for it is for the Minister’s spouse.
Liam Fox denied having broken the Ministerial Code, despite having acted in a way that allowed the perception of conflict of interest to arise and avoiding his civil servants for an official meeting. Equally, Jeremy Hunt is also denying breaking the Code even though he has failed to take responsibility for the actions of his Special Adviser, not given accurate information to Parliament of the sort Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband have rightly been asking for and disclosed information to News Corp before Parliament.
The similarities stretch even to the Prime Minister preventing legitimate investigations by the Independent Adviser for Ministers’ Interests. The Code states that, “If there is an allegation about a breach of the Code” then it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether the independent adviser should investigate, yet on two serious occasions now he has failed to take responsibility for the actions of Ministers on his watch.
There are, however, some differences. Liam Fox’s mistake was to bring Werritty in to one of the most sensitive of Government Departments from outside, circumventing the civil service. Jeremy Hunt’s is to permit a member of Departmental staff to circumvent the rules of his quasi-judicial role.
For Liam Fox it was accusations about Adam Werritty’s money trail that did for him. On the eve of the donors to Werritty’s company Pargav being revealed Dr Fox decided to stand down, leaving many questions about the links between Tory donors and Adam Werritty unanswered. For Jeremy Hunt it is not money but a harder-to-define currency that may lead to his downfall: the currency of improper influence. Mr Hunt and Mr Smith had serious influence over a competition case which they were supposed to eschew given the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State. For reasons unknown – bias or orders from above – they didn’t and the standards demanded of those in the highest office were undermined.
Furthermore, any coalition tensions over the Fox-Werritty saga remained unaired, whereas often sanctimonious Simon Hughes questioning the PM’s decision not to hold an inquiry not only places greater pressure on Hunt but perhaps displays a Lib Dem weariness with Tory scandal.
It is striking that the Government has not learnt the lesson that failing to address serious charges does not cool the interest or suspicion but reheats it.
In the foreword to the Ministerial Code David Cameron wrote that the British people “expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down”. Sadly, his behaviour in responding to two cases of Ministerial standards he has let people down. It can’t go on like this, and it may not for Mr Hunt.