Sketch: Hunted Jeremy had nowhere to hide on phone-hacking

Jeremy Hunt received a drubbing at the despatch box
Jeremy Hunt received a drubbing at the despatch box

Jeremy Hunt, a small woodland animal caught in the headlights, was run over repeatedly before Ed Miliband and co had finished with him.

By Alex Stevenson

This article was first published on July 12th 2011

Miliband may struggle against the prime minister on Wednesday lunchtimes, but dealing with Hunt was hopelessly one-sided. He was merciless. The government, which has been rolling over because it "fears defeat" at his own mighty hands, was in "chaos and confusion". Labour MPs bayed hungrily as Miliband repeated his demand that Rebekah Brooks resign. On the benches opposite they quailed as David Cameron's utterances were dismissed as "weasel words". "This issue," Miliband said, quivering slightly, "goes to the heart of the prime minister's integrity." Der-der-derrr!

Hunt began as he ended up going on, with a miserable apology. He had had a little spat with Miliband behind the Speaker's chair before they began, which the leader of the opposition had terminated by going off in a huff. Hunt, eyebrows raised, looked like there wasn't much he could do about whatever was upsetting Miliband.

It turned out that the Labour leader was fed up because he had only just received a copy of the statement. Hunt apologised. He barely recovered. As he read through his hastily cobbled-together speech, drastically rewritten after Rupert Murdoch changed his mind on the BSkyB bid, he could barely get up steam before being ridiculed by those opposite.

This painful scene reached its low point when he observed, stretching optimism beyond the limits of plausibility: "Today's announcement will be one that the whole House welcomes." The jeering was intense. "Look behind you!" they yelled at a sea of miffed-looking Tory MPs.

The big mistake he made was one of tone - trying to get the opposition to agree that politicians of all parties had made mistakes when it came to the Murdoch empire. Hunt had the air of a minor Shakespeare character summing up amid the carnage of the tragedy. "Now is not the time for party political posturing," he said, as wetly as the wettest lettuce leaf at the bottom of the salad bowl. "We have all failed - politicians, journalist and media owners - and we must all work together to put the problem right." Tory MPs, who either looked utterly disgusted at Miliband or as if they were pretending to be somewhere else, tried a cheer. It was a little feeble.

They could not stop Labour MPs bombarding Hunt with an innumerable number of questions, following Miliband's lead in ignoring the fact that the PM wasn't present. It was Cameron they wanted to grill - just because he wasn't there didn't mean they weren't going to ask the questions.

They wanted to know whether Cameron's chief of staff had failed to pass information on to Cameron. They wanted to know whether Hunt knew about a dinner which took place last year between James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. They wanted to know whether Andy Coulson had been positively vetted.

Jack Straw, who is letting his hair grow a bit longer now he has left public office, found an excellent way of wanting to know everything - by demanding a "full detailed chronology". Preferably before hometime. Jump to it!

Hunt did not know the answer to any of these questions - probably because he was not the prime minister. The opposition demanded that he come up with some answers. Former home secretary Alan Johnson even called him a "monkey".

"I take being called a monkey very seriously," Hunt said, "because in my wife's country they used to eat them." Uproarious laughter, and a wry smile from the man in the line of fire.

There was no fight from Hunt, no swashbuckling panache. Instead, despite being a specialist in natural chirpiness, he took punch after punch from Labour. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing," he drooped. "Everyone will be reflecting on what has happened." Some with more opportunistic excitement than others, that's for sure.

Tory MPs did their best to prop Hunt up, pointing out New Labour knew a thing or two about cosying up to Murdoch. The culture secretary was looking for all the help he could get, even finding support from the nodding John Bercow.

"I wasn't expressing approval or disapproval," the Speaker said. "I was merely nodding benignly, as is my wont."

You know it's bad when a Conservative minister looks to this Speaker for support. At least Hunt was doing his job of covering for the prime minister well. Cameron, who will be dreading this week's prime minister's questions, will not escape the hordes for long. 


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