This might sound a bit strange, but I’m prepared to bet that Jeremy Hunt really wishes Vince Cable had kept his mouth shut when he met those undercover Telegraph reporters. It’s because of that little indiscretion, of course, that Hunt has the responsibility for deciding whether Murdoch can acquire a controlling stake in BSkyB, and frankly what he’s doing at the moment looks a lot like stalling. If you think about it, this really isn’t surprising; as things stand there’s just no way this can go well for him or the Conservatives: if he gives it the OK, no one will believe he was being impartial; the links between News International and the Tories are just too great. It’s not just the general pro-Conservative leanings of the Murdoch press, or the fact that no. 10′s now-disgraced ex-communications chief used to edit the News of the World – now it turns out Cameron even went to dinner at James Murdoch’s house over Christmas. There’s simply no way Hunt can let the sale go ahead without it looking, if not corrupt, then at least distinctly dubious. And that’s without even considering the damage it’ll do to the Tories’ relationship with the normally reliably pro-Conservative Telegraph and Daily Mail, both of whom strongly oppose the deal.
If, on the other hand, Hunt rules against Murdoch, that’s pretty unlikely to bode well for the Tories’ prospects at the next election. They’re already behind in the polls; how much further are they likely to slip if the Sun and the Times desert them again, as they did during the Blair years?
Life would be much easier for Hunt and the Conservatives if it was Cable was making this decision; since the minister responsible has act in a ‘quasi-judicial’ capacity and not consult with any of their colleagues, leaving it in the hands of a Lib Dem gave the Tories plausible deniability; if it was Cable who blocked the deal, he’d get the flak for it from Murdoch’s lackeys, not anyone else in the government. And if he let it go through, well, it’s not like any News International paper ever backed the Lib Dems, is it?
Putting the BSkyB decision in the hands of a Lib Dem probably wasn’t deliberate, unlike a lot of the manoeuvring the Tories have been doing to ensure their junior coalition partners get blamed for unpopular government policies such as the tuition fees hike. But it would probably have worked out well for them – this is a decision the Conservatives really don’t want to have to make themselves. My hunch is that the deal will be allowed to go through, but the Tories could well take some serious damage as a result.