Cameron faces questions over BSkyB deal after Hunt slip-up

This article was originally uploaded on 22/07/11.

By Ian Dunt

The furore over David Cameron's involvement in the BSkyB bid refused to die down after it was revealed he discussed it with News International.

The prime minister refused to confirm that he had discussed the bid with figures from the company nine times during a gruelling two-hour session in the Commons yesterday.

But a later debate saw media secretary Jeremy Hunt inadvertently reveal the discussion took place.

At one point Labour MP Dennis Skinner asked Mr Cameron if he ever discussed the BSkyB bid with Rebekah Brooks, a close personal friend of Mr Cameron who has had her career completely derailed by the scandal.

"I never had one inappropriate conversation," Mr Cameron replied, to jeers from the Labour benches.

"I've answered the question," he insisted.

Ben Bradshaw, Mike Hancock, Chuka Umunna, Jeremy Corbyn, Bill Esterson, Catherine McKinnell and Barry Gardiner all asked similar questions but received vague replies.

In a later debate Mr Hunt let slip the fact that BSkyB had been discussed, saying: "The discussions the prime minister had on the BSkyB deal were irrelevant.

"They were irrelevant because the person who had the responsibility… the person who was making this decision was myself.

"I was making it on my own. This was not a matter of collective responsibility, this was a quasi-judicial process."

Former foreign secretary Jack Straw said it was "the first occasion in six hours of debate where there has been any admission the prime minister had any discussion whatsoever about BSkyB".

Mr Cameron argued that what he discussed with Ms Brooks was inconsequential because he was not the one responsible for the deal but critics argue the media secretary would have been affected by the prime minister's stance.

Mr Cameron and his wife had dinner with James Murdoch and Ms Brooks and their respective partners just two days after he removed responsibility for the deal from Vince Cable, who had said he was "at war with Murdoch".

Information released by Downing Street reveals that Mr Cameron met with News International figures 26 times since becoming prime minister, compared to just once with the BBC.

"Jeremy Hunt did not refer this matter for an independent inquiry to the Competition Commission which is what we wanted all along – he hung on to the decision making process in quite an unusual way – and that's why, throughout this process, people have questioned its transparency and independence," said shadow media secretary Ivan Lewis.

"What he has said tonight just fuels that suspicion and concern that it hasn't been independent at all."

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who was among those who warned Mr Cameron against hiring Mr Coulson, said the prime minister had been "very frank and candid about the fact he takes responsibility for it".

"Of course there were constant conversations about… who was going to be appointed, who was going to be employed," he said.

"I questioned and asked questions about some of the decisions about who was being brought into government who had been active in opposition. At the end of the day it was the prime minister's decision and I think the prime minister has been quite upfront."

A recent Ipsos Mori poll shows Mr Cameron's personal approval rating is at its lowest point since he became prime minister in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

The slip also throws Mr Hunt's position further into the spotlight. Mr Hunt was considered a rising star in Cabinet, with rumours that he was being groomed to take over the health secretary's role, but an unconvincing performance since the row began has prompted speculation that he has fallen out of favour.