Jeremy Hunt's senior civil servant has refused to explicitly back the embattled culture secretary, as the row over inappropriate contacts with News International during the BSkyB takeover bid continues.
Jonathan Stevens, appearing before MPs by coincidence, contradicted Mr Hunt's claim to the Commons yesterday that his special adviser Adam Smith's "inappropriate" contacts with News Corporation during its BSkyB takeover bid had been authorised by himself.
"There was a clear statement by the special adviser who made it clear the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the secretary of state," Mr Stevens said.
"It wasn't actually said yesterday but the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by me."
Mr Hunt had told MPs that "Adam Smith was a part of the process that was authorised by the permanent secretary" and that "all the roles in that process were agreed by the permanent secretary".
Mr Stevens was asked five times to confirm that he was not responsible for authorising the contacts between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and News Corporation, but avoided giving a clear answer.
Later, the department put out a statement confirming he was in fact aware of the arrangement.
"The permanent secretary did not feel it was appropriate to provide further information ahead of the department's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry," a spokesperson said.
"As Jeremy Hunt's statement yesterday made clear, the permanent secretary was aware that Adam Smith was amongst a small number of individuals in the department who were in contact with News Corp and was content with that arrangement. As Adam Smith's statement makes clear, the content and extent of his contact was done without authorisation, and were contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary."
'No contact with Hunt'
Earlier News Corp's chairman Rupert Murdoch, giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, said he had not spoken to Mr Hunt about the bid.
Mr Murdoch said he could not remember whether he asked his son James Murdoch about whether Mr Hunt would be more amenable to the bid than business secretary Vince Cable, who was exposed as being "at war" with the Murdochs in a Telegraph sting.
"We thought we'd probably get a fairer go from anyone other than Dr Cable," he told the courtroom.
"I assumed any responsible minister would be responsible and deal with it in a completely unbiased way. I thought Dr Cable was an exception."
His evidence session, on oath, came as Ed Miliband stepped up pressure on the embattled culture secretary to resign.
Miliband rejects Hunt's defence
The Labour leader suggested Mr Hunt must have known about his special adviser Adam Smith's contact with News International over its bid to takeover BSkyB in an interview on the Today programme.
"That his boss had absolutely no idea about any of that, frankly that beggars belief," Mr Miliband said. Mr Hunt was supposed to be acting in a quasi-judicial manner after responsibility for ruling on the takeover passed to him from business secretary Vince Cable.
Mr Miliband said Mr Smith had been "engaged in a six-month collusion with News International" which briefed Rupert Murdoch's company on "what the opposition was thinking" and telling them about conversations Mr Hunt had had with regulator Ofcom.
Yesterday evening shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman wrote to David Cameron demanding that three apparent breaches of the ministerial code be referred to the independent adviser on ministers' interests.
Labour wants Mr Hunt to take responsibility for his special adviser, under paragraph 3.3 of the ministerial code. Mr Smith resigned yesterday morning, in a move Mr Hunt said was necessary as "the volume and tone" of his communications with News International "were clearly not appropriate".
Mr Hunt told the Commons yesterday he had followed due process "scrupulously".
Yesterday the prime minister made clear he had full confidence in Mr Hunt and pledged to stand by him.
But the opposition is looking beyond Mr Hunt's possible resignation so that Mr Cameron's own relationship with News International can be probed in greater detail.
Mr Miliband added: "Jeremy Hunt is, if you like, acting as a firewall, because if he goes, the questions will then move to David Cameron's conversations with Rebekah Brooks, with James Murdoch and others."
Bookmakers William Hill slashed their odds on Mr Hunt becoming the next minister to leave Cabinet to evens yesterday. It quoted odds of 11/4 that he would still be in his post on May 1st.