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Hunt and Picnics

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture, Media and Sport Minister, must be squirming. He had the legal responsibility for making the quasi-judicial decision on whether the Murdoch empire should be allowed to take over BSkyB fully. It appears that his special adviser had a close liaison with the Murdochs’ lobbyist. The special adviser appears to have been given the role of liaison officer between the government department and the Murdochs. He even told the Murdochs what Jeremy Hunt would tell Parliament before he said it. Even he agreed it went beyond bounds and resigned.

Call me old fashioned, but if someone is making a quasi-legal review, the only kind of conversations with the interested parties ought to be those which sought clarification or further information. This seems to me to be something that civil servants can do with the greatest of ease. A special adviser communicating with an interested party – in this case the Murdochs – on a regular basis, it does not need.

Ministers, under the Ministerial Code of Conduct introduced by the last Labour government, are responsible for what their advisers say and do. There is an established process and an official to look into breaches of the Code at the request of the Prime Minister. Prima facie there is a case for investigation under the Ministerial Code. To say that the issue should be looked into by the Leveson Inquiry, which:

“…will examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media. In particular, Lord Justice Leveson will examine the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians.  He is assisted by a panel of six independent assessors with expertise in key issues being considered by the Inquiry. …It will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards…”

seems to be evasion and the invention on the hoof of a new process.

The Prime Minister has stated that he will consider other action if the Leveson Inquiry unearths any further details. Lord Leveson himself has said very publicly that this is not his job under the terms of reference of the Inquiry. It is hardly likely that Lord Leveson will go out of his way to unearth further details on an issue which is not his concern. Do we really need further details? The case is so clear-cut that action should be taken now through the proper channels – the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

This looks more and more like an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass and protect Jeremy Hunt. Fifty-nine per cent think he should resign according to the latest You Gov poll. It is why people become very cynical about politicians.

So what has it got to do with picnics? Well on the 14th April the Liberal Democrats in Richmond had a “picnic” on Richmond Green with speakers including Vince Cable and Susan Kramer. It was advertised by Kingston Liberal Democrats. They say they want to send a message to the Conservatives not to build a third runway at Heathrow. It was probably rained off (statement of fact – not a political statement!)

The Liberal Democrats say they have “secret evidence” that the Conservatives are plotting secretly to build a third Heathrow runway, despite their agreement not to as part of the Coalition, despite the high-speed railway to Birmingham so that it becomes unnecessary (sic), and despite the range of studies being made looking for a suitable runway site outside Heathrow. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the Tories have a secret plan. It is a total fabrication. Others might call it a lie.

This seems to me to be far more cynical than the Jeremy Hunt case. The Liberal Democrats invent a story about the policies of their “coalition allies”, and then rail against them. Is this nothing more than an attempt to show that they really are not in bed with the Tories? Is it an attempt to gain leverage in the London elections and local by-elections?  Whatever. This kind of thing brings politics into disrepute, and calls into question why anyone would want to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

If this is the politics that the Liberal Democrats want, I would urge them to be careful what they wish for. Other parties can do the same and a party like the Liberal Democrats, that puts out a leaflet miss-spelling the name of its own London mayoral candidate, can hardly be the tastiest and most desirable VAT-rated pasty in the oven. It also makes you wonder what else the Liberal Democrats invent and lie about. This kind of thing brings politics into disrepute and leads to disengagement with democracy. Let’s have discussion and debate on values and policies, not spin, fairy tales and calculated slurs.

The best thing the Kingston Liberal Democrats and Edward Davey could do is to distance themselves from this ploy. Failure to do so shows that they are tarred with exactly the same brush – and voters will wonder what trust they can put in anything the Liberal Democrats write or say.

by Laurie South, Chair of Kingston & Surbiton Constituency Labour Party and Labour candidate in the Coombe Hill by-election.