“He’s fine” – this succinct text from one of Jeremy Hunt’s supporters last night was in response to a question from me about how resilient the culture secretary was feeling. Jeremy Hunt is a man whose previously smooth progress through life has now hit a huge obstacle. While the atmosphere around him is febrile, it is true that he has not yet been given an opportunity to give his side of the story on his conduct during the proposed BSkyB takeover. Last night’s statement from him was defiant – “I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness”. It will take some political skill from the culture secretary to save his cabinet place and explain the extremely chummy contact between his adviser Adam Smith and Fred Michel, the News Corp lobbyist. Even that may not be enough, as focus turns on the PM’s relationship with News Corp with the appearance of Rupert Murdoch in front of the Leveson Inquiry.
Hunt will also need to explain what he meant by his claim that some of the meetings and conversations discussed in the email chain never took place. The idea of Hunt as a future Tory leader is provoking guffaws today, but he is a more substantial politician that many gave him credit for. During background discussions in the House of Commons before interviewing him last year, I discovered a man who was doing an awful lot of groundwork to realise his ambition. Active on the ‘rubber chicken’ circuit around the country speaking to Tory associations, Hunt was noted for his combination of presentation and detail skills. It’s true that even his supporters admit his politics needed fleshing out, with many of his colleagues unsure as to what he was really about. Also, as one of his detractors pointed out, he had a habit of taking the credit for his ministers’ ideas in his department. But the grand plan was for a successful Olympics followed by a promotion in the reshuffle to a meatier Cabinet position, possibly health.
This could all now lie in tatters, with the evidence so far looking fairly damning. David Cameron may have to sack Hunt if he doesn’t walk first. But can the culture secretary fight his way out of the hole he currently finds himself in. It would be some escape act.