Yesterday MPs debated whether Jeremy Hunt's alleged breach of the Ministerial Code ought to be investigated by the standards adviser, Sir Alex Allan.
The Prime Minister went to the House of Commons to defend his Culture Secretary's handling of the BSkyB bid, holding in his hand a letter from that adviser which said that he couldn't "usefully add to the facts in this case."
The Prime Minister told them: "The point is, it is for the Adviser on Ministerial Standards to discover the facts; it is for the Prime Minister to make the judgement."
The adviser had bowed out of the former role, it seemed, and the Prime Minister had made his mind up in the latter.
The Prime Minister's stance was taken at face value in many quarters.
The BBC described the letter as the Prime Minister's "secret weapon." The Telegraph's headline oddly went so far as to say that Mr Hunt was "formally cleared" — perhaps to the surprise of the article's author?
Others were less convinced. Harriet Harman MP, opening the debate for Labour and echoing her leader at Prime Minister's Questions, asserted that "it is for the independent adviser to make a judgment [emphasis added] on whether the ministerial code has been breached."
In an unusual meeting of minds, today the Daily Mail backed Ms Harman's argument:
"It was the day a slippery David Cameron suggested he had the watchdog's backing for his refusal to submit the Culture Secretary to a sleaze probe.
"In fact, Sir Alex Allan had agreed only that he couldn't 'usefully add' to the facts of Jeremy Hunt's handling of the BSkyB takeover bid, which had emerged (in damning detail) at the Leveson Inquiry.
"As his full letter makes clear, however, the adviser on ministers' interests is quite willing to judge the case — and what could be more 'useful' than that? — if only Mr Cameron asks him."
"The fact that there is an on-going judicial inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in this case though I remain available should circumstances change or new evidence emerge."
Nowhere does he say explicitly that he would be willing to judge the case, but there is good reason for this.
There is a Procedure for Investigation of alleged Breaches of the Code by the Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests, set out by a previous holder of the post. It says:
"The purpose of an investigation by the Independent Adviser is to establish the facts relating to the allegation and to enable the Prime Minister to decide whether there has been a breach of the Ministerial Code and, if so, what action to take in consequence."
Mr Cameron is clearly right that ultimately it is for the Prime Minister to make that judgement.
However, paragraph 15 of the detailed procedure makes it clear that the overall purpose obscures a key stage in the process:
"The Adviser will then finalise his report. In doing so, he will include his assessment as to whether or not the allegation(s) against the Minister are supported by the evidence and whether any breach of the Ministerial Code has occurred."
Ms Harman is right. The Prime Minister could ask Sir Alex Allan for his assessment of whether Jeremy Hunt has breached the Ministerial Code.
Making those assessments is a normal part of the role, codified in the Procedure for Investigation of alleged Breaches of the Code by the Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests.
The Prime Minister's careful description of the role of the adviser is not false, but in this case what was not said is as important as what was said. It would be easy to take away the impression that the adviser's letter meant that there was no possible role left for him. That is not true.
Someone like Sir Alex Allan, appointed to such a sensitive role after a distinguished career in the civil service, is likely to choose his words carefully. By restricting his comments to saying that he did not think he "could add to the facts," he leaves us guessing whether he feels he could usefully add to the assessment which needs to be made.
The Daily Mail has gone furthest by interpreting that to mean that he "is quite willing to judge the case." In saying so they are, at the very least, heavily reading between the lines, and their chosen interpretation (an opinion, in an opinion piece) could be wrong — but he certainly had the opportunity to make it clear if he was unwilling to the judge the case, and has conspicuously chosen not to.
Isn't it nice to have the whole picture?
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