Phone-hacking ‘cost me Lib Dem leadership’

By Alex Stevenson

Negative press coverage as a result of a story gained through phone-hacking cost Simon Hughes the Liberal Democrat leadership, he has claimed.

The senior Lib Dem, who came third in the 2006 race to success Charles Kennedy, told the Leveson inquiry he had been "odds-on favourite" to beat rivals Chris Huhne and eventual winner Sir Menzies Campbell before the publication of a damaging story by the Sun newspaper.

After its journalists pressured him into admitting he was bisexual by confronting him over his having run a gay chatline he became a 4/1 outsider, he said.

Mr Hughes told the inquiry: "There was apparently a direct impact between that revelation and the consequent press coverage and my political reputation and chance of winning the election."

In a written statement he said he had become "increasingly concerned about the functioning and reliability of the voicemail message service on my mobile phone" in 2005 and 2006.

Family and friends had complained about him not responding to messages which he had "never received", while on other occasions he came across stored messages which he had not previously listened to.

Mr Hughes cited a drop in his poll ratings the day after the Sun's story was published. His campaign was also notable for his apology for a homophobic 1983 election campaign against Peter Tatchell.

He was eliminated from the 2006 contest after winning just 23.2% of the first-round votes.

'Unforgivable' failures

Mr Hughes' evidence came in the first week of the Leveson inquiry's focus on the relationship between police and the press.

He received £45,000 in a settlement with News International earlier this month but remains angry with the Metropolitan police, which failed to pursue phone-hacking beyond the 2006 convictions of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman.

"It was not just a freelance agent employed on a contract basis," Mr Hughes said.

"That's for me where the significant failure occurred… there was a whole range of people clearly acting in concert either directly or indirectly illegally and they were not touched. I find it impossible to find a good explanation for why that happened."

Mr Hughes used his evidence session to highlight claims made by senior News International figures. Lawyer Tom Crone had told MPs no other News of the World journalists were involved in phone-hacking, but Mr Hughes insisted that was "clearly not true".

He called for the Press Complaints Commission to be strengthened but insisted public interest in cases like MPs' expenses should continue to be accepted as a defence by the courts.