Friday 27 April 2012

When is a minister responsible for his SpAd?

The hand that shoved Adam Smith out of the culture department this week wasn't all that invisible. Whether or not Jeremy Hunt's erstwhile special adviser volunteered to take the whole blame for providing endless updates to the News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel is almost beside the point. That the Culture Secretary accepted that he should take the whole blame for clearly inappropriate revelations is more important and revealing about a minister who is more usually presented as a gallant nice guy.

Of course, the special adviser should never become the story. Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan both had to go when they were doing so (though their respective contributions to the Labour government were of a very different quality) as did Jo Moore after her 9/11 email. But this case seems different. Jeremy Hunt has been an avowed cheerleader for News International. He has made no secret of the fact. There is no question that he will have been sympathetic to Murdoch's BSkyB bid, though I am sure equally that he would have wanted to be seen to be judging it with the impartiality that his office requires. So, he could never talk directly to Murdoch's people. Yet he may have felt that his special adviser could keep them informed through a discreet back channel without it ever being revealed.

It was just unfortunate that the whole Levenson business came along and the internal emails of the Murdoch empire were forced into the public domain. Otherwise, how would we have known? We can be quite sure that there are no emails from Hunt to Smith or Smith to Michel, at least on DCMS servers. Jeremy Hunt is not an idiot and nobody would be so silly with today's Freedom of Information rules. So Hunt's volunteering of his emails to his adviser is a pointless charade. But discreet phone calls or face-to-face conversations would not be recorded and would not have to be revealed in any pesky FoI requests.

In truth, we will have no way of knowing for sure whether Smith was acting like an improbable lone ranger on a solo mission to keep Murdoch's man in the loop or whether he was doing his master's bidding. What we do know is that his minister should explicitly be held responsible under David Cameron's ministerial code for what his special adviser did.

The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment. Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.

And since we also have Hunt's word that Smith is 'someone of integrity and decency' who simply 'overstepped the mark', this begs the question as to what he was asked to do, and by whom? Clearly the Permanent Secretary didn't approve any back door communications with News International, as his refusal to answer the question yesterday demonstrated. So, at some stage, the minister must have said or indicated to his adviser that he should do so, even if he left it to Smith to decide how much to reveal. That is the difference between 'overstepping the mark' and 'going rogue'.

Of course, there may well be times when a special adviser doesn't keep their minister informed of every conversation they have. And indeed it would have been prudent not to have done so in this case, given the impartiality required of the Secretary of State. But that doesn't mean that there was no initial agreement - tacit or otherwise - that the special adviser would keep the back door open. And if there was such an agreement, it was wholly improper, and the code makes it the responsibility of the minister.

So, it is simply unacceptable for David Cameron to try to sweep the whole thing under the Levenson carpet. He needs at the very least a speedy adjudication by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to get to the facts and be assured by Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on the code, that there was nothing ever said or indicated by Hunt to suggest that his adviser should maintain special communications with Murdoch's man during the period when the Secretary of State was required to be impartial. Indeed, Hunt should have explicitly told Smith to avoid discussing the issue with News International unless it was properly minuted and equal time was afforded to the opponents. Ministers have had to resign for far less important transgressions than this before. Unless we can have a categorical assurance that Hunt made no such suggestion or indication, the Culture Secretary should go - and do so before Levenson reports.

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