David Cameron faces Labour questions over dinner with James Murdoch
Ivan Lewis asks PM to explain whether he broke ministerial code as News Corp awaits decision on BSkyB bid
David Cameron faced renewed pressure tonight over his close links to News Corp when Labour challenged him to explain whether he broke the ministerial code by having dinner over Christmas with James Murdoch, days after stripping Vince Cable of his media takeover powers.
As Downing Street moved to distance itself from News Corp, saying the prime minister had no plans to meet Rupert Murdoch at the World Economic Forum in Davos later this week, Labour warned of "serious questions" about Cameron's judgment.
Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture secretary, posed a series of questions to the prime minister in a letter after the Independent disclosed today that James Murdoch met Cameron for dinner over Christmas at the Oxfordshire home of the News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. The Guardian revealed last week that Cameron had been a guest of Brooks over the Christmas period.
The dinner with James Murdoch, the Europe and Asia chairman of News Corp, took place days after Cameron stripped Vince Cable of his powers over media takeovers and handed them to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. Hunt is to decide within the next few weeks whether to refer to the Competition Commission News Corp's bid to buy the 61% of BSkyB it does not own.
Downing Street, which was shaken on Friday by Andy Coulson's resignation, insisted Hunt would decide "alone" in his quasi-judicial role on whether to accept an expected recommendation from Ofcom to refer the bid.
But Labour challenged Cameron to explain whether he had discussed the matter during the dinner and whether he had breached the ministerial code. In his letter Lewis asked the prime minister whether he:
• Had discussed News Corp's bid for BSkyB with James Murdoch.
• Could confirm the date of the dinner and whether he had informed Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, of the invitation in advance.
• Could confirm whether his attendance at a dinner during "a quasi-judicial process, being conducted by one of your ministers, is consistent with the ministerial code".
• He could say whether any of his officials had had or planned to have any discussions with Hunt about the BSkyB bid since 31 December.
• Could confirm whether he would be meeting Rupert Murdoch before Hunt makes his decision.
Lewis said: "Throughout this process Labour has demanded maximum transparency and impartiality.
When Vince Cable boasted he had declared war on Rupert Murdoch we called for him to be sacked.
That is why David Cameron's decision to attend this dinner with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in the middle of a quasi-judicial process raises serious questions about his judgment.
I am writing to the prime minister today asking him to give straight answers to five key questions. The integrity of our media is central to our democracy. That is why his answers are of significant public interest."
The ministerial code calls for transparency and for ministers not to accept hospitality where it might appear to place a minister under an obligation.
The code states: "It is a well-established and recognised rule that no minister should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation. The same principle applies if gifts etc are offered to a member of their family."
Downing Street sources dismissed criticisms of the dinner. They said the prime minister always disclosed formal meetings in Chequers and the official areas of No 10. But the prime minister believed it was not necessary to comment on private social engagements during a holiday period.
The prime minister's spokesman said: "Clearly, the prime minister does meet with people from the media from time to time. That is not at all unusual for prime ministers."
Downing Street said Hunt would abide by the law, which says he has to decide on his own in a quasi-judicial capacity, whether to refer the BSkyB bid. It is understood that Ofcom has recommended that the bid should be referred.
The No 10 spokesman said: "On the bid process ... the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is considering the report and he makes the decision in a quasi-judicial role. It is his decision alone."
Downing Street faced pressure on another front after Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat climate change secretary, accused the Metropolitan police yesterday of failing to investigate phone-hacking allegations properly. Coulson resigned as the Downing Street director of communications on Friday after he said the renewed allegations about phone hacking during his time as editor of the News of the World were making his job in No 10 impossible.
Coulson resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 after the jailing of the paper's former royal editor and a private investigator over illegal phone hacking. Coulson has always denied knowledge of wrongdoing and blamed a "rogue reporter".
Huhne cast doubt on that defence and accused the Met of reacting to his calls for a full inquiry last year by "scurrying back to Scotland Yard" and dismissing the idea in an afternoon. "We know the police were not keen on the subject, because when I called for a very clear review of this, the police scurried back into Scotland Yard, spent less than a day reviewing it, and popped out in time for the six o'clock news to say they had discovered no further evidence," he told BBC1's The Politics Show.
The prime minister's spokesman said today: "The position at the present time is that the Crown Prosecution Service are carrying out an assessment of the information that is held by the Metropolitan police. That process is under way and it is up to the CPS to make a decision on their assessment. The prime minister's position is that if there are allegations of illegal behaviour, then those allegations need to be taken very seriously, but in all cases it is a matter for the police and the CPS."
The spokesman said any complaints about the Met's handling of allegations should be made to the force's commissioner and to the Metropolitan Police Authority.