A firestorm has torn across Westminster overnight, since Nick Clegg instructed his MPs to abstain from today’s opposition motion demanding that Jeremy Hunt be referred to Sir Alex Allan, the ministerial standards supremo. Numerous Tory backbenchers have taken to the airwaves to condemn their perfidious coalition colleagues. The Mail has the most complete record of the rage. One MP vowed revenge on the liberals. Another described the abstention as ‘an act of war’ before Cameron and Clegg appear before the Leveson inquiry. And Peter Bone said that the Lib Dems ‘are not fit to be in government because they can’t accept collective responsibility.’
Downing Street tells a different tale. ‘There is no split,’ a spokesman said. Aides are quoted in many newspapers insisting that Cameron assented to Clegg’s case. His case appears to be that his party is not bound by collective responsibility on opposition motions, and that the leadership must take account of its MPs’ consciences.
Those consciences are more sympathetic to Mr Hunt than one might think. Several yellow backbenchers have told news outlets that they view Labour’s motion as ‘cheap’ and ‘opportunistic’. In which case, why not vote against it? The reason given is that many in the party are unsatisfied with Mr Hunt’s explanations about his relationship with News Corp during the BskyB bid. Therefore, the best route is to abstain and hope, in the manner of Micawber, that something turns up — or so the muddled thinking goes.
There seems to be nothing to belie the claim that all is well at the head of the government, although there can be no doubt that Cameron would have preferred clear unity. But I wonder if this small drama is a symptom of rumoured friction over how the government should respond to Lord Leveson’s recommendations. We will get a better impression of what that response might be once Cameron and Clegg have given evidence.Tags: Coalition, David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Leveson inquiry, Nick Clegg