The line that Tory HQ is inevitably peddling is one of victory. After Wednesday’s defeat of a Labour motion calling for an independent inquiry into Jeremy Hunt’s conduct, the Culture Secretary is said to be in the clear. He, and his party, perhaps hope that the vote consigns questions about his handling of News international’s BSkyB bid to the past. It won’t.
The vote threw up a myriad assortment of questions, many of which will continue to lead back to doubts about the judgment of Mr Hunt, and even that of his boss, the Prime Minister. To begin with, the Conservatives’ partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, abstained en masse from the vote, ensuring it was narrower than it could have been, and very markedly divided along party lines. By ordering abstention, Nick Clegg played a shrewd move: he clearly disapproves of Mr Hunt’s judgment, but by not voting for the motion he can’t be accused of betrayal. Even so, however, this was hardly a vote relating to the coalition agreement: ‘betrayal’, in this instance, would have been allowed.
Some have perceived this vote as a sign of coalition strain. Martin Kettle writes that this is inevitable, but the differences here will not crack the coalition. Indeed, it won’t. But the two parties are like tectonic plates, steadily drifting apart, having come together in the earthquake that was the 2010 election. By failing to support Mr Cameron’s judgement on whether Mr Hunt should have been subject to an ‘independent’ inquiry, one more crack in the coalition appears. The jury is still out on whether enough of these cracks will accumulate by 2015 to rupture the government. But the ‘differentiation’ strategy is clearly in motion. This view sees Mr Hunt as a catalyst in the increasing coalition friction, but not a cause.
A second question that the vote threw up is something that should have been obvious beforehand: the idea of an ‘independent’ inquiry into ministerial conduct is anything but if it depends on Mr Cameron giving the go-ahead, let alone parliamentary approval. If it is the subject of such political wrangling, how exactly can it then be called ‘independent’? Sir Alex Allan, the mandarin who would be carrying out an ‘independent’ inquiry – and has recently been asked by Mr Cameron to carry out such an inquiry into Baroness Warsi’s relatively trivial misdemeanour – is being paid £20,000 to sit quietly and give advice only when it is asked for. Mr Cameron did not ask for that advice in the case of the three other cabinet ministers in the coalition who have had to resign: David Laws, Liam Fox, or Chris Huhne. He has not asked for it in Jeremy Hunt’s case either. Presumably, Mr Cameron thinks his own inquiries suffice. Therefore, Sir Alex cannot conduct any inquiry to determine whether ministers are breaking the ministerial code. And he cannot do his own job. His independence is in name alone.
Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly for those who subscribe to the view that democracy is a fragile but extremely precious ideal, the idea that a motion calling for an inquiry of a minister’s conduct should be so divided along tribal, party lines shows that the merits of the case were not considered for a second. MPs toed the party line when they should have examined whether there are genuine grounds for concern, and therefore inquiry. There are: Mr Hunt’s special adviser had been in extremely regular contact with NewsCorp, Mr Hunt had made clear his lack of impartiality on the case and yet was given responsibility for it anyway, and Mr Hunt allegedly misled parliament on his position.
Vernon Bogdanor, an authority on the British constitution, has been very clear about this: Mr Hunt’s conduct has been grave enough to render him unfit for office. He should not be subject to an inquiry; he should simply resign. And yet, backbench Conservative MPs blocked the possibility even of an inquiry. They are loyal to the man, and loyal to the party. But they are not loyal to the principle. Democracy suffers for it.