by Atul Hatwal
Why does Jeremy Hunt still have a job? His holding statement last night was so full of holes it could be used to sieve the peas.
Hunt’s words were carefully chosen, and as ever when politicians’ parse, it is what is not explicitly ruled out that counts: “some of the evidence reported meetings and conversations that simply didn’t happen “.
So, some of the meetings and conversations did happen.
That’s enough. A cursory reading of the e-mails suggests that for Hunt to survive, Frédéric Michel would have had to have been a complete fantasist. Jeremy Hunt has already said he is not.
The depth of trouble in which Hunt finds himself can be gauged by the way the Leveson cache of e-mails is being reported: almost always with a prefix such as “devastating”, in the same way Andrew Lansley is normally “gaffe-prone” or “under pressure”.
Naturally, Jeremy Hunt thinks he can ride out the storm. After spending the best part of the past two decades scrambling to climb the greasy political pole (so to speak), he and his advisers will desperately be looking for a way through the minefield. It’s an understandable human reaction.
But what makes less sense is the response from Number 10.
Quite apart from the substance of the issue and the appalling privileged influence that the Murdochs clearly enjoyed, there is something potentially even more damaging in the Downing street reaction, certainly in the medium term: their failure of political judgement.
Political grown-ups are meant to live in Number 10. People whose job it is to look dispassionately at the political calculus of events such as this, think a number of moves ahead and manage the situation.
Yet instead, Number 10 stated the prime minister had “full confidence” in Jeremy Hunt while refusing to confirm their confidence in the integrity of the process Hunt ran. Do they really think this distinction will play with the public?
What David Cameron and his team have guaranteed is days of front page coverage and yet another enduring PR agony for this calamity ridden government.
There are only two ways this imbroglio will resolve – either the pressure and headlines will overwhelm Jeremy Hunt and he will fall on his sword, or, worse for the government, Hunt will limp on as a member of the political living dead.
In this latter situation, every minor event or speech he gives will be scrutinised for gaffes. Every reception he goes to, every lunch and dinner he attends will be viewed with suspicion.
The black spot will be on him, as it is on Andrew Lansley and has been on countless ministers and prime ministers in the past. Once a politician has this media mark of Cain, there is no salvation.
If Jeremy Hunt somehow hangs on past the next few days then Harriet Harman can look forward to weeks of happy headlines as the tiniest Hunt misstep will become a page lead with space for a prominent quote from the opposition shadow.
Just the job as the Olympics are about to start.
All of this should be self-evident and to some in number 10, perhaps it is. But two factors have prevented the swift despatch of Jeremy Hunt’s P45 – a desperation for the focus to be on anyone other than the PM, and Cameron’s own reticence when wielding the knife.
The immediate Number 10 priority to ensure Jeremy Hunt remains in the firing line and that David Cameron is minor part of the story is a manoeuvre they have used before. It’s why Downing Street has propped up Lansley and their hope will be that as long as the pack is chasing Hunt, the prime minister will remain safe.
This reasoning rather misses the larger damage to the government’s well-being and the prime minister’s reputation from a running media sore and the conclusions that will inevitably be drawn about the PM’s judgement in allowing it to persist.
Similarly, David Cameron’s hesitancy in dealing with Hunt demonstrates a familiar reaction from the PM in a crisis. Whether the reality is that Cameron lacks the ruthlessness needed for the top job or it’s the early onset of the gangrene of government, he has been critically slow to respond to major events such as the initial revelations on hacking or the London riots.
In contrast, when in opposition Cameron was nimble enough to run rings around Gordon Brown and turn it very clearly to his advantage – despite his own questionable position.
There are always a hundred reasons to wait and see, and making a painful choice to sack a close ally will have few advocates round the strategy table. But that doesn’t make it less right and yet again, David Cameron has taken the easy option.
In the short term, there will be two consequences from David Cameron’s failure to act decisively on Jeremy Hunt.
First, for the prime minister, this latest disaster will confirm the “something has changed” narrative. It is a meme that has taken hold across Westminster. Plunging poll ratings and a weekly barrage of bad headlines has generated a feeling among the media and politicians that this government is no longer able to effectively deliver its agenda.
As Pat McFadden wrote on Uncut last week, nothing is more damaging than for a government to lose its reputation for competence.
Second, the slew of dreadful headlines and media narrative over the next week will potentially depress Conservative support even further in the run-up to the May local elections.
David Cameron has handled the past few weeks on such an epically inept scale that, in London, he has almost single-handedly brought Ken Livingstone back into the race. If, and it remains a very big if, the Tories lose the mayoral race after being so far ahead for so long, the blame will only be placed at one door.
For the longer term, the Hunt affair confirms David Cameron’s modus operandi.
Whether its health reform, the budget or Jeremy Hunt’s contacts with News Corporation; in each case, Number 10 has been content to let the secretary of state take the heat while they fail to intervene forcefully to get a grip on the situation.
We now know that this is how Cameron operates. In the coming months the government will continue to periodically plunge into crises of their own making as a result of this central dysfunction.
The opportunity for Labour will be there.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut