Murdoch lobbyist shared baby texts with Jeremy Hunt

Fred Michel adds to picture of cosy relationship with Culture Secretary, but he embarrasses Nick Clegg too

Column LAST UPDATED AT 16:45 ON Thu 24 May 2012

JEREMY HUNT’S Cabinet career could be toast after more damaging evidence of his chummy relations with Fred Michel, the lobbyist paid by Rupert Murdoch to get the Culture Secretary on side for his BSkyB take-over bid.

Michel exchanged 799 text messages with Hunt and his advisers - many of which were warm enough to have been between brothers. They included a text from Michel congratulating Hunt on his appearance in the Commons.

"Merci," Hunt replies. "Large drink tonight"

"Very good on Marr," Michel said on another occasion.

"Hopefully when consultation over we can have a coffee like the old days," Hunt replied.

But Michel also caused embarrassment for Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy Prime Minister, and one of his special advisers Tim Colborne.

So far, the Lib Dems have come out of the Leveson inquiry smelling of roses because Business Secretary Vince Cable and his special adviser, Giles Wilkes rebuffed Michel and all his attempts to get close.

Giles Wilkes warned Michel repeatedly he could not discuss the bid with him. Leveson inquiry QC Robert Jay said: “He (Wilkes) said, ‘There are huge risks for me to talk about anything to do with Ofcom’ (the communications regulator).”

Cable was taken off the case by Cameron after a Daily Telegraph ‘sting’ in which he was recorded saying he was at war with the Murdoch empire. But the Leveson inquiry heard this morning that Michel got a more friendly hearing from Jonny Oates, Nick Clegg’s special adviser.

Oates told Michel that Cable would "make up his own mind" and would not be influenced by anyone, and "would take the decision on its merits in accordance with his statutory obligations".

But in an email read out by Robert Jay, the inquiry QC, Michel said he had had an "honest discussion" with Colborne "on the importance of getting Labour on board [and] comfortable with the transaction as it would influence Cable a lot".

Michel said that he understood from a Liberal Democrat perspective that "might not be comfortable" but challenged by Jay whether he was sure, he insisted: “We definitely discussed this.” Michel's email to Murdoch officials also claimed Colborne would insist on Cable meeting with the Murdoch team once the Ofcom report was published.

Meanwhile, there is more pain for Hunt over his friendly relations with Michel. They had their children in the same hospital, Chelsea and Westminster, and they exchanged friendly emails about the kids over Christmas - after Hunt had warned Michel that he would have to break off contact because he had been handed the BSkyB bid by Cameron.

Hunt sacked his special adviser Adam Smith for going "too far" in leaking inside information about the bid to Michel. But Michel insisted that Hunt knew what was going on.

Michel said he had the "sort of impression that some of the feedback I was being given had been discussed with the Secretary of State before I was given it".

Jay challenged Michel, saying his emails to his bosses in the Murdoch empire were exaggerated, "to puff yourself up".

In the run-up to Christmas 2010 - around the time Hunt took responsibility for the bid from Business Secretary Vince Cable - Michel sent the Culture Secretary a text saying: "Have a great Christmas with the baby."

Hunt replied: "Thanks Fred. All contact with me now needs to be through official channels until decision made." Despite that, they continued to exchange friendly text messages, including one from Michel backing Rafael Nadal against Andy Murray when Michel saw Hunt at the tennis match. "Was this schmoozing?" asked Jay.

Michel admitted he was a "compulsive texter" but was far from being the "fantasist" that he has been painted, Michel came across as a great networker, Gallic and truthful.

It got worse for Hunt later in the afternoon when the Culture Secretary's former adviser Smith told Leveson that his former boss had made it clear when he took over responsibility for the BSkyB bid that he wanted to be “available for meetings and more open”.

Before Cable was taken off the case, Hunt had written a lengthy memo to Cameron warning the Murdochs could seek a judicial review against the business secretary for perceived bias against them.

Hunt wrote: "James Murdoch is pretty furious with Vince's referral to Ofcom... I am particularly concerned about this because News Corp are very litigious. We could end up in the wrong place..."

Referring to the media coalition ranged against News Corp and its bid for BSkyB, Hunt also warned Cameron: “It would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thompson/ Channel 4/ Guardian line.”

Smith returns to Leveson to give further evidence tomorrow. His evidence and that of Michel is certain to revive Labour calls for a full independent inquiry into whether Hunt breached the ministerial code by becoming too friendly with the Murdoch men - demands so far resisted by David Cameron. ·