Leveson: Vince Cable digs a big hole for Jeremy Hunt

Lib Dem refused to engage with News Corp interests during BSkyB bid – unlike Hunt

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:14 ON Wed 30 May 2012

VINCE CABLE has been digging a large hole for Jeremy Hunt, the embattled Culture Secretary, over the BSkyB bid in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this morning. The Business Secretary has revealed he could not take calls from Fred Michel, the Murdoch lobbyist, and refused to meet James Murdoch because of 'legal risks'.

Hunt will be asked tomorrow at his make-or-break session with the inquiry why he was so pally with Michel and Murdoch Jnr when Cable wouldn't touch either with a bargepole. Michel and Hunt exchanged chummy text messages, and e-mails calling each other 'daddy' and 'pappa' because they had both had children in the same hospital.

Cable, in complete contrast, explained why he kept Michel and Murdoch at arms' length. His evidence is highly damaging to Hunt because it suggests that Hunt was prepared to risk compromising his own decision on the merger - which he favoured - despite all the legal advice that Cable got, warning him to steer clear of such close contacts.

Cable said he turned down requests to take calls from Michel and to meet with Murdoch because he had been warned by his department lawyers that any perceived bias would be open to a legal challenge through an appeals tribunal, which would be the equivalent of a judicial review.

He also accused Michel of making "veiled threats" that the Murdoch titles would "do over" the Liberal Democrats. "More seriously, I had heard directly and indirectly that there had been veiled threats that my party would be done over in the News International press. I took those things seriously and I was very concerned," said Cable.

The veteran MP refused to name his source, but under cross-examination by the Murdoch's lawyer at the end of the session, he said those threats had been in his mind when he made the off-the-record remarks about a 'war on Mr Murdoch' to undercover journalists from The Daily Telegraph.

After that episode, David Cameron took responsibility for the decision about the merger out of Cable's hands and gave it to Hunt, who is now facing calls for his resignation after the disclosure of texts and email messages showing just how close his contacts with the Murdoch empire were.

Cable fuelled the calls by telling Robert Jay, the inquiry QC, that he refused to see James Murdoch because of legal warnings he had received from the Business Department lawyers. "I don't wish to be disrespectful to Mr Murdoch," said Cable. "In this case, I thought there were compelling reasons not to meet. There was a legal risk because the subject he wished to talk about, I could not talk about."

He said if he had met James Murdoch, it might have been thought by the alliance opposing the Murdoch bid, including the BBC, C4 and The Guardian, that it would be partial. They would have wanted to have their own meetings to lobby him, said the Business Secretary.

"The key reason was I didn't think it was necessary because they had the opportunity to put their views. My office had a line of communication to News Corp and made it clear we were prepared to listen to any representations they made."

He was told that Michel had tried to contact him, but Cable said he refused to take any calls from the lobbyist. "The name Frederic Michel didn't register on my radar," said Cable dismissively. Cable also turned down an invitation to a reception by News International because of the risk of compromising his decision.

Hunt has blamed his former special adviser, Adam Smith, who he sacked, for going 'too far' with his contact with the Murdochs, but Cable also tore away that defence, saying he had not authorised any of his own special advisers to speak for him. When the question of advisers was put to him, he told Jay: "Nobody was authorised to speak on my behalf."

Leveson seized on Cable's approach, saying "It is not unimportant. There are e-mails addressed to other people..." Leveson did not name Adam Smith, but there was no doubt he was storing up damaging questions for Hunt tomorrow.

One Tory who has done well at the inquiry is Michael Gove, who caused something of a sensation by standing up to Leveson over free speech yesterday. He is now being talked about as a future leader of the Tory party. As if Cameron didn't have enough to worry about. · 

Disqus - noscript

Well, this was inevitable. Cameron now needs to ditch Hunt as soon as possible, before too much of the Murdoch manure lands on his own doorstep. A risky strategy, but one which Cameron will be forced to invoke since, rather than being a human shield for Cameron, every day Hunt remains in his job he becomes a bigger and bigger liability!

What a tangled web we weave when first we pr...

I think you know the rest!