Protected by his spin doctors Jeremy Hunt sneaks past a group of junior doctors on his way to a “constituency meeting” with Lord Lingfield
A PipeLine Special Investigation by Andy Brockman
Last week, the British Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt announced he was going to impose a controversial new contract on England’s Junior Hospital Doctors. This was just the latest move in a bitter dispute during which the Secretary of State was accused of misusing unpublished medical research data and allowing his spin doctors to misrepresent the views of senior hospital managers, as part of an agenda to prepare the National Health Service for further restructuring. Restructuring which, it is alleged, would favour private health providers, many of whom have connections to members of the ruling Conservative Party.
In the latest of our special investigations into the controversial relationship between Odyssey Marine Exploration and the UK Government, thePipeLine demonstrates that Mr Hunt has form for trying to get his own way and for ignoring expert advice in favour of promoting controversial free market solutions which, it is alleged, favour his political friends and contacts, as we investigate the strange tale of Mr Hunt’s involvement with a shipwreck, a Conservative Party grandee and the constituency meeting which wasn’t.
During the first week of July 2010 the Secretary of State for Culture Media, Sport and the Olympics in the newly elected Conservative led Coalition Government, the Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt MP, held a meeting with his constituent and near neighbour in Surrey, the former chair of the South East Region of the Conservative Party, Sir Robert Balchin, now Lord Lingfield. The subject of the meeting was the future management of the wreck of HMS Victory, lost in a storm with all hands in October 1744, which had been discovered in the English Channel two years earlier by the controversial Florida based treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration. A week later, on 12 July 2010, Sir Robert Balchin wrote to Secretary of State Hunt on first name terms, thanking him for taking the meeting and asking for the Secretary of State’s “help” in enabling the excavation and recovery of artefacts from the wreck by Odyssey who would sell for profit any bullion found on board the ship. There were just three problems.
- Sir Robert Balchin Lord Lingfield was not Mr Hunt’s constituent, but he was, as Mr Hunt’s officials knew and reported to the Secretary of State, a committed and uncritical lobbyist on behalf of Odyssey Marine Exploration.
- Mr Hunt was supposed to be heading up an objective consultation on the future management of the wreck of HMS Victory on behalf of the British Government.
- Mr Hunt had not told his officials he was taking the meeting, although it was about Government departmental business, and the solution for the future of the wreck of HMS Victory apparently suggested by Lord Lingfield and accepted by Mr Hunt, actually breached the established Government policy for historic wrecks which Mr Hunt was supposed to follow.
That the meeting took place has been known about for some time. Indeed, it was reported in Private Eye magazine as well as previously in thePipeLine. However, documents obtained by thePipeLine under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] confirm the extent to which Mr Hunt’s civil servants at the DCMS were concerned at the Minister’s conduct and how it threatened to compromise, not just the UK’s policy for historic shipwrecks, but the Government’s entire relations with its statutory adviser English Heritage [now Historic England].
The documents also show that causing even more concern in Whitehall was the possibility that Mr Hunt’s action in meeting Lord Lingfield, who was treated as a lobbyist for Odyssey, could even damage the UK’s international relations, particularly those with nations in the European Union [EU] which were involved in trying to protect historic wrecks from exploitation by commercial salvage companies.
By the Summer of 2010 when the unminuted meeting took place, Odyssey Marine Exploration was developing a reputation for getting into legal trouble through looking for, and even salvaging, valuable historical artefacts, gold and silver coins, and bullion, without asking the legal owners, such as the Governments of France and Spain, first.
However, as subsequent events have proved, Mr Hunt ultimately ignored the advice of his own experts, and, along with an equally pliant Ministry of Defence, led the Government into a protracted battle with an archaeological community which was even required to threaten a judicial review to force the Cameron Government to follow its own policy with regard to historic wrecks, and to prevent the possible sale of artefacts from HMS Victory 1744.
Such a commercial sale is allowed for under the commercial salvage contract which Lord Lingfield’s charity, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, signed with Odyssey in January 2012 and such a sale could even include the private property of the eleven hundred officers and men of the Royal Navy who were lost with the ship.
Mr Hunt’s conduct in allowing off the record lobbying over HMS Victory 1744, has also inadvertently opened a window into the inner workings of the Cameron Government and the culture of cronyism which has allowed unelected individuals and networks to gain privileged access to Ministers, and with it the ability to influence policy to the advantage of their own pet projects and even commercial entities,.
Jeremy Hunt MP
[DCMS Official Photograph]
“Dear Jeremy….Yours Ever Bob”
The official UK Government consultation on the future management of the wreck of HMS Victory 1744, which had been set up by the outgoing Labour Government, ended on 30 June 2010 and Sir Robert Balchin wasted no time in meeting the new Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, with responsibility for the heritage management policy aspects of the ship, the Member of Parliament for South West Surrey, Jeremy Hunt.
No contemporaneous notes are available for the contentious July meeting between Mr Hunt and Sir Robert because it appears that DCMS officials were not told in advance the meeting was to take place. Certainly none were present, although it was later admitted in Parliament that Ministerial and not Constituency business was discussed, namely HMS Victory. However, a subsequent letter, sent on 12 July 2010 in which Sir Robert asks for Mr Hunt’s help in facilitating the HMS Victory salvage project, does suggest what was discussed and it reads as little short of direct lobbying on behalf of his project and in the commercial interests of Odyssey Marine Exploration.
In particular, Sir Robert’s letter set out a vision of a win/win situation for the Government provided the right; “commercial model and contract” could be negotiated with Odyssey.
Apparently acting as a cross between an agent, a lobbyist and a go between, the commercial deal which Sir Robert reported Odyssey was offering the Government, would see Odyssey take the risk of recovering the wreck under supervision by a third party, according to a commercial contract [he does not say if by using the term “third party” he meant his proposed charity which would be established in October 2010].
Odyssey would conduct the recovery at its own cost in return for the ability to sell valuable collectible cargo such as coins and specie, if such material was discovered at the wreck site. Sir Robert also claimed to have spoken already to representatives of the Ministry of Defence, the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Historic Dockyards and to have obtained their support.
the UK Government…would get a percentage of the proceeds of any sale of valuables
The icing on the cake of Odyssey’s salvage proposal, as promoted by Sir Robert, was that the UK Government, which was led by the Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron, would get a percentage of the proceeds of any sale of valuables.
Given Odyssey was promoting press stories that the alleged cargo could be worth as much as $500 million, the potential upside for a Government in the midst of delivering an eye watering an austerity programme to the UK’s public services was considerable.
In the context of the Coalition Government this joint commercial and charitable sector venture, requiring no Government money to be spent, but which might even see a substantial payment into the Government coffers, was offering Minsters exactly what they wanted to hear. Something Sir Robert, himself a staunch free marketeer, must have known, and he may even have advised Odyssey that such a strategy would pay off.
Certainly he will have known that in Mr Hunt he was talking to a Minister who was also highly receptive to such free market solutions because in 2005 Mr Hunt had been a co author of a book by a group of young, post Thatcherite, free market orientated, Conservative Party thinkers which put forward just this kind of framework for delivering Government services at arms length.
The book, “DIRECT DEMOCRACY: An Agenda for a New Model Party“, was effectively a manifesto for a future Conservative Government and the introduction to the book provides a hint of the political climate in which the HMS Victory consultation now found itself.
“A new consensus demanding the extension of the activist state’s reach is underpinned by support from the BBC, the judiciary and academia. We believe that reform must aim to shift power from those élites currently administering, and centralising power within, Britain’s public realm.”
In other words, within this wider attempt to rein in the BBC and the “activist state”, the perceived “elites” of the public heritage sector, which meant in the main English Heritage and mainstream academic maritime archaeologists in receipt of Government funding either directly, or through Universities and other funding bodies, would also reined in, sidelined and replaced by charitable and even commercial, service providers like Odyssey and the kind of charitable trust which Sir Robert told Mr Hunt he planned to create to run the HMS Victory project.
In that context, selling any bullion and specie which might be found on the wreck site, as Sir Robert told Mr Hunt, Odyssey planned to do as a reward for their risk in pursuing the venture, was entirely acceptable and ideologically coherent. Unfortunately it was also completely contrary to generally accepted archaeological ethics and stated Government policy as both Odyssey and officials in Whitehall were fully aware from repeated run ins with leading archaeologists and archaeological organisations over an earlier UK Government approved contract to permit Odyssey to salvage what Odyssey claim is the wreck of HMS Sussex, off the coast of Spain.
The result was that two swashbuckling free market iconoclasts bulls, Sir Robert Balchin and Gregory Stemm, co-founder and then Chief Executive Officer of Odyssey Marine Exploration; and Secretary of State Hunt, who it was clearly expected would be their ally in Government, found themselves running full tilt into the cautious Whitehall china shop, where the role of a Civil Servant is not just to carry out ministerial policy, but also to protect the Minister and therefore the Government, from legal risks, which sometimes means finding a subtle way of saying “no minister”.
It will also have been particularly obvious to the officials reading Sir Robert Balchin’s letter to Mr Hunt that Sir Robert was also pressurising the Secretary of State to deliver a quick decision. Sir Roberts letter stated;
“If, however, all this is to become a reality, a decision has to be made quickly, preferably by the end of September so that preliminary work can begin before Winter makes life difficult in the Channel.”
Trained civil servants do not like to make hasty policy decisions to other peoples timetables at the best of times, and the new Secretary of State’s, at best naivety, and at worst connivance, in taking the July meeting with Sir Robert, coupled with the evidence from Sir Robert’s letter of such an obvious desire for the kind of haste which would prevent full scrutiny of the project and deny time for any opposition from the archaeological world to mobilise, would have had alarm klaxons going off across the DCMS.
It was as a response to those alarms, that on 17 August 2010 the specialist Culture Team at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, sent Jeremy Hunt a strongly worded set of recommendations and risk assessments for the HMS Victory Project entitled:
“WRECK OF HMS VICTORY SUNK 1744 (“BALCHIN’S VICTORY”) – CORRESPONDENCE AND DISCUSSION OUTSIDE PUBLIC CONSULTATION (CMS 149869 Redacted).
Mr Hunt was being told explicitly that Sir Robert Balchin was colluding with Odyssey Marine Exploration to the possible detriment of the Government
It is clear from the reference to “correspondence and discussion outside public consultation” in the title that one purpose of the document was to remind Mr Hunt that in taking the July meeting with Sir Robert he had stepped out of line and worse, he had done so in a way which had encouraged Sir Robert to continue to lobby for his project and Odyssey, even after the HMS Victory consultation had closed on 30 June 2010. Effectively, in the eyes of the officials, Mr Hunt and Sir Robert Balchin were already negotiating to green light the HMS Victory project before the response to the consultation had even been agreed with the Ministry of Defence, which held administrative responsibility for the wreck, let alone reported the result to Parliament. This was a major breach of Parliamentary etiquette as convention requires that the members of UK’s Sovereign Parliament are supposed to hear any policy announcements first.
The Culture Team’s document opened with an explicit summary of the dangers of the position Mr Hunt had accidentally, or deliberately, blundered into, and Sir Robert Balchin’s relationship with Odyssey, saying [our italics];
“Sir Robert is asking for a statement from the Department on our policy position on treatment of underwater cultural heritage. Any such statement should be considered in the light of your views on the Department’s position on underwater cultural heritage and could potentially generate a great deal of future work in defence of that position. Given Sir Robert’s close links with the main commercial salvor with an interest in the site (much of the wording of both his letter and submission reflects that salvor’s views), any letter is likely to be shared with them, and create further issues for the handling of both this case and wider policy on the issue of how this Government deals with UCH issues.”
Put succinctly, Mr Hunt was being told explicitly that Sir Robert Balchin was colluding with Odyssey Marine Exploration to the possible detriment of the Government of which Mr Hunt was a member.
This was the case because allowing Sir Robert to proceed with the HMS Victory salvage with Odyssey as contractor using a commercial model dependent on the sale of artifacts to fund the excavation, would lead the UK into a direct confrontation with the bulk of the international archaeological community and the United Nations body UNESCO which had set out the International “Gold Standard” for maritime archaeology, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
The UK Government had not ratified the UNESCO convention, claiming controversially that the Convention compromised Sovereign Immunity by giving apparent responsibilities regarding British military wrecks to other Governments, but it had adopted the Annex to the convention as its policy towards historic shipwrecks, and the Annex rules explicitly forbid the sale and disposal of artifacts to fund excavations, or the breaking up of an archaeological archive through the sale of artifacts.
In the light of the policy to uphold the UNESCO Annex, the Culture Team recommended;
“That you respond to Sir Robert, considering the line you might wish to make on support for the principles of the 2001 UNESCO Convention, and to noting that the outcome of the consultation has yet to be decided and will be a decision on behalf of both Departments.”
…the second Department being the Ministry of Defence which technically had administrative responsibility for the actual wreck as a Royal Navy warship protected by the concept of Sovereign Immunity under International Law.
DCMS Civil Servants effectively read the Riot Act to Mr Hunt
Next, in that polite and coded Whitehall way, the DCMS Civil Servants effectively read the Riot Act to Mr Hunt, telling him not to engage in any further inappropriate discussions with a stakeholder, that is Sir Robert Balchin/Odyssey, saying;
“We suggest that you consider avoiding making any further comments to external stakeholders which might pre-empt the result of the consultation.”
Mr Hunt’s Civil servants will have been acutely aware that any suggestion that the consultation was either pre-judged, or unfairly influenced by one or more of the stake holders, could see the whole process subjected to Judicial Review and rendered an expensive, and embarrassing, void.
The document also reminded Mr Hunt of the potential international ramifications of letting Odyssey loose on a historic shipwreck when it was already embroiled in a bitter legal wrangle in the US Courts with the Government of Spain over the 17.5 tonnes of silver which Odyssey had lifted without permission from the wreck of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. The Culture Team asked Mr Hunt;
“To note that the future of this wreck site is receiving international attention, other EU states, some of which have not ratified UNESCO, are taking steps- e.g. through arresting vessels- to oppose unrequested commercial salvage of underwater cultural heritage, and, future management of this site will require further international cooperation from those states.”
Remarkably the document then explicitly warned Mr Hunt that US Courts had upheld EU cases brought against Odyssey Marine Exploration. The very company on behalf of which Sir Robert Balchin was actively lobbying, both in his submission to the HMS Victory consultation and in his letter of 12 July [our italics].
“You may also like to note that the US itself has upheld EU cases on assertion of sovereign immunity on UCH [Underwater Cultural Heritage] involving this salvor.
To note that this is one of many cases of a British wreck at risk from salvage in international waters. Commercial salvors have located a number of other wrecks of potential monetary interest just outside British territorial waters, and are actively seeking other such wrecks. The concept of Sovereign Immunity for British naval wrecks is the only current means of protecting such wreck sites.”
This was a reference to both the Mercedes case and a second case brought by the Government of France which the Culture Team reported had led to the arrest of an Odyssey vessel and Odyssey being prevented from working within the French 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ].
Viewers of the Odyssey
infomercial reality TV series “Treasure Quest” [JWM Productions for the National Geographic Channel] will remember the expressions of hurt innocence, as if Odyssey were the injured party, when their former vessel, Odyssey Explorer was overflown at low level by a French Air Force Atlantique 2 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In fact the French were absolutely within their rights to check that Odyssey were not working illegally.
“OME’s interest in the site centres, despite their protestations to the contrary, on the possibility of recovery of bullion”
The DCMS risk assessment ended with a damning assessment of Odyssey’s true motivation in undertaking the HMS Victory project, suggesting that Odyssey’s public position that their interest in the wreck was primarily;
“…the archaeological management and preservation of Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory,”
was at best disingenuous and, at worst, a deliberate lie designed to mislead the Government and the wider public.
The DCMS team told Mr Hunt that their view was that unequivically;
“OME’s interest in the site centres, despite their protestations to the contrary, on the possibility of recovery of bullion thought by some to have been on board.”
This has potential to damage both the Government’s relationship with the international community, and…English Heritage
On 24 August 2010, a week after he received the Culture team’s recommendations, Mr Hunt replied to Sir Robert Balchin writing;
“My officials have received your response to the joint consultation on this wreck site. I know of course that you have a strong personal view, given your family’s connection with the site.”
This was a reference to the spurious claim, promoted by Odyssey in media releases, that Sir Robert Balchin was a descendant of Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost with HMS Victory. In fact professionally conducted genealogical research has shown that any kinship link between Sir Robert and the Admiral is distant at best.
The letter continued with a pointed paragraph reminding Sir Robert, and Odyssey, that they were not going to be allowed to re-shape British Government policy on historic wrecks and underwater archaeology in their own interests with reference to the concerns of other stake holders;
However there are as you know, others with an interest in how the Government treats underwater cultural heritage, and the purpose of the consultation was to allow all with an interest to make their views known to Government, in enabling future decision making on the site.”
Mr Hunt’s letter concluded with a paragraph both distancing Mr Hunt from the earlier discussion he had held with Lard Lingfield and acknowledging what had been discussed;
“Given that the outcome of the consultation has yet to be announced, and given also that both you and Odyssey Marine Explorations are stakeholders in that consultation, it would not be appropriate for me to make any further comment at this stage as to the model proposed, or the legality of that model, or to pre-empt Government’s views on the outcome, given the range of views and the resource implications that we need to take into consideration.
With best wishes,
It is noticeable that, like similar formal departmental letters sent to Sir Robert Balchin, Lord Lingfield by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in 2014 and 2015, the letters between Sir Robert and Mr Hunt were conducted on very familiar, first name terms as might be thought to befit long-standing Party colleagues, rather than objective parties in a professional relationship.
One reason for Mr Hunt being advised to respond in a way which seem completely contrary to what his actual sympathies and wishes seem to have been as suggested by the July letter from Sir Robert Balchin, might be found in another strongly worded comment which the Culture Team included in their recommendations to Mr Hunt.
“This has potential to damage both the Government’s relationship with the international community, and create further tension with our expert advisers in the Maritime team at English Heritage, at a time when the Government is under intense scrutiny for handling of the Victory case as a test case.”
However, just eighteen months later in January 2012, in spite of that clear warning from the specialist Culture Team at the DCMS, Mr Hunt oversaw the DCMS’s part in the gifting of the wreck of HMS Victory 1744 to Sir Robert Balchin’s new charity, now called the Maritime Heritage Foundation. A decision which proved that the Culture Team’s warning to Mr Hunt to have been absolutely correct.
The gifting of the ship to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which many observers argue is simply a front for Odyssey Marine Exploration [see thePipeLine passim], has led to a protracted struggle between the mainstream archaeological community, including English Heritage/Historic England and Lord Lingfield’s charity, with Odyssey the ghost at the feast.
The row culminated in the awarding of permission to recover “at risk surface items” in October 2014, by Defence Secretary and another long standing political associate of Lord Lingfield, Michael Fallon, only for Mr Fallon to be forced to make a humiliating you turn and withdraw the permission in March 2015 when faced with the threat of a judicial review into his decision.
Given this completely unnecessary political grief culminating in the humiliation of having to rescind permission to work on the site, it has to be asked why Ministers were so determined to let Lord Lingfield have his way?
…what Mr Hunt is not is Lord Lingfield’s constituency MP
One possible answer might lie in an e-mail to civil servants dated 2012, in which Sir Robert Balchin, by now ennobled by Prime Minister the David Cameron as Lord Lingfield, invoked the authority of Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt saying;
“However, of course, my submission to the Consultation, accepted by the Secretary of State as the preferred way forward, outlined my plans for the proper archaeological excavation of the site and, of course, this is what, step by step in consultation with the Group, the Foundation hopes to do.”
This form of words carries the clear implication that anything Lord Lingfield was doing was with the approval of Mr Hunt and thus of the Government, so that any officials attempting to question the conduct of the project did so at their peril.
Another possible answer to the question of why Lord Lingfield received such apparently favourable treatment from Mr Hunt and Mr Fallon, seems to lie examining the personal and professional relationships at the top of the Conservative Party.
A source who attended a meal in London with the then Odyssey CEO Gregg Stemm at the time Mr Hunt was talking to Lord Lingfield, told thePipeLine that Mr Stemm had claimed that there was no need to worry about Mr Hunt giving permission for the salvage of HMS Victory because Mr Hunt was Lord Lingfield’s protégée.
While this anecdotal report cannot be verified independently, Mr Hunt is certainly a Surrey MP with roots in the County and has long-standing links to the highest levels of the Conservative Party, and thus to the patronage and influence which moving is such circles attracts. Indeed, he inherited his South West Surrey seat from former Conservative Health Minister Virginia Bottomly, now Baroness Bottomly of Nettlestone , who coincidentally had also been Culture Secretary under John Major, and who is also Mr Hunt’s cousin.
Lord Lingfield also lives in Surrey, the well heeled and well connected Conservative heartland, where he developed a political power base within the Conservative Party from the time he first served as a Surrey County Councillor in the early 1980’s. He later rose to become Chair of the South East Region of the Conservative Party, with a key role in the selection of Parliamentary candidates.
Mr Hunt and Lord Lingfield will also have crossed paths when Mr Hunt became Shadow Minister for Disabled People under newly elected Conservative Party Leader David Cameron. Mr Hunt was an early supporter of his Oxford University contemporary Mr Cameron and supported his Leadership bid and it was during Mr Hunt’s tenure in the Shadow role that Lord Lingfield was asked to chair a Commission on Special Needs in Education by Mr Cameron.
However, while they may be long-standing Party colleagues, what Mr Hunt is not is Lord Lingfield’s constituency MP. An inconvenient fact which did not stop the DCMS telling Private Eye magazine he was, when the department confirmed that the July 2010 meeting had taken place, albeit admitting the fact somewhat reluctantly.
The constituency meeting line was then repeated in greater detail in a written answer to a Parliamentary Question in 2012 [our italics];
“The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport met with Lord Lingfield in July 2010 in his constituency surgery in his capacity as MP for South West Surrey. The HMS Victory 1744 was discussed; no commitments, formal or informal, were made.”
HC Deb, 3 September 2012, c218W
However, if you place the Post Code of Lord Lingfield’s published address, New Place, Lingfield, Surrey, into the official Parliamentary search engine which enables you to find your MP, you discover that Lord Lingfield’s constituency MP is actually Mr Sam Gyimah.
Of course, in July 2010 Mr Gyimah was a newly elected back bench member and was conspicuously not seated around the Cabinet table in 10 Downing Street as Secretary of State for Culture, with direct responsibility for the HMS Victory consultation and disposal, which Mr Hunt was.
This is a serious matter because, as the Speaker of the House of Commons commented in 2004;
“There is a well understood convention in the House that unless otherwise agreed between the Members concerned the interests of electors should be represented only by the constituency Member.”
In March 2009 Mr Speaker Martin added a comment which is directly applicable to Mr Hunt’s meeting with Sir Robert Balchin;
“I do not expect any hon. Member of this House to take up cases other than those in their own constituency”
In this case there is no evidence that either Sir Robert Balchin or Mr Hunt approached Mr Gyimah and if this is the case Mr Hunt clearly broke with House of Commons convention.
Not only that, the Ministerial Code, which is sanctioned by the Prime Minister and governs the conduct of all Ministers, states explicitly that;
“Ministers in the House of Commons must keep separate their roles as Minister and constituency Member”
It follows that by discussing HMS Victory, departmental business, at what was alleged to be a “constituency surgery”, Mr Hunt also failed to comply with the Ministerial Code.
“…it would take some very special politicians to be prepared to allow a foreign company turn a profit through the sale of the personal possessions of someone else’s ancestors”
It is now clear that in meeting and discussing HMS Victory 1744 with Sir Robert Balchin in early July 2010 Mr Hunt had taken a meeting, not with a constituent, but with a man who his own civil servants saw working as a lobbyist for an American commercial treasure hunting company, a lobbyist with whom he was also personally acquainted. Thus almost certainly the meeting between the two men was in contravention of both Parliamentary Convention and the Ministerial Code.
However, in spite of the implied censure, coupled with the explicit and strongly worded advice of his Culture Team, Mr Hunt then embarked on a policy of favouring Lord Lingfield and Odyssey which would lead to more than five years of embarrassments and climb downs for the Cameron Government over HMS Victory 1744.
At the same time as he was offering such apparently favourable treatment to Lord Lingfield and Odyssey, Mr Hunt and his Special Advisors [SPADS] were also beginning the back channel negotiations with Rupert Murdoch’s B SKY B which were revealed in the Leveson inquiry, and which almost brought a premature end to Mr Hunt’s Cabinet career.
More recently Mr Hunt has been involved in another public confrontation, this time with Junior Hospital Doctors over the issue of pay and contracts, amid accusations that the Government is deliberately trying to engineer a confrontation to break the doctors trade union, the British Medical Association and create systemic failures within the National Health Service as a prelude to further privatisation of NHS services. As this article was published Mr Hunt announced he was going to impose a new contract on Junior Doctors in the Autumn; a contract which the junior doctors had voted to reject and which could face two separate legal challenges.
With this record an impartial observer might be forgiven for wondering why a Minister as apparently accident prone as Mr Hunt is still even in Parliament, let alone holding a senior position within the Cabinet. However, all three spectacular policy and public relations car crashes, HMS Victory, BSkyB and the Junior Doctors dispute have one thing in common. They all serve the free market, deregulatory, anti establishment agenda which Mr Hunt and his co-authors had espoused in 2005 and which the Cameron Government has been pursuing since May 2010.
Once in Government in 2010, the new model Conservative Party which Mr Hunt and his colleagues had described in 2005 set out to offload and deconstruct Britain’s public sector. As part of that process expert bodies, such as English Heritage [now Historic England], which were seen as a brake on policy were sidelined and stripped of resources through funding cuts of between a quarter and a third. A process which has led to serious disruption and loss of morale among staff brought, about by regular restructuring and the loss of many expert staff through redundancy. At the same time the regulatory powers of those same organisations were diluted through the pursuit of policies of localism, devolving elements decision making to local authorities and agencies without the staff and resources to take full account of complex issues with international implications, and deregulation.
For critics of the Government the overall result has been that the Government and its own departments and agencies are losing ability to “formulate and enforce statuary measures of heritage protection”, as a joint report from UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites [ICOMOS] into the Stonehenge Tunnel project alleged recently.
In the Summer of 2010 it must have seemed to those behind the commercial HMS Victory project, that with a Conservative led Government in office, propped up by ideologically sympathetic “Orange Book” Liberals like Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and with that Government determined to cut costs by rolling back the involvement of Whitehall and local authorities in virtually every aspect of national life, a new dawn of free market, for profit maritime “archaeology” was about to dawn.
A new dawn which for some potential commercial partners, such as Odyssey, contained the added bonus that English Heritage and the maritime archaeology establishment would be neutered, de-clawed, and put in their place by the Government.
It is often said by critics of the Cameron Government that it knows the price of everything, the value of nothing and that its members [and their friends and Party donors] would sell their own grandmother if they thought it would turn a profit. However, even against that ideological background, it might be felt that it would take a very special politician to be prepared to allow a foreign company turn a profit through the sale of the possessions of someone else’s ancestor who had died serving the Crown as a member of the Royal Navy. Yet all the indications are that is precisely what then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, and senior Conservative Peer and advisor to David Cameron and Michael Gove, Sir Robert Balchin, Lord Lingfield, were on the verge of agreeing to allow Odyssey Marine Exploration to do in July 2010. It was only the objective professionalism of the officials at the DCMS, and later the vigilance, persistence and professional bravery of many members of the maritime archaeology community, which have prevented it; so far.
It is also often said that David Cameron’s Government was effectively a chumoccracy of people from the same educational, business and social networks. The procurement of the London Garden Bridge is often cited in this regard, with then London Mayor Boris Johnson riding roughshod over Transport for London procurement rules to ensure his childhood babysitter, actress Joanna Lumley, got her wish of a Garden Bridge in central London, part paid for by £60 million in grants and sweetheart loans facilitated by Mr Johnson and his Conservative Party colleague and fellow Bullingdon Club member, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne [see thePipeLine passim]. Whether Jeremy Hunt and Sir Robert Balchin were ever really close enough to be called chums in the social sense is a moot point. The relationship appears to be more feudal in nature, being based on patronage and preferment within the Conservative Party.
However, in another definition, “Chum” is a rather unpleasant mixture of fish guts and other unwanted offal spread on the waters bait, taking advantage of greed to lure in the big fish to be caught.
The accusation stands that in July 2010 Lord Lingfield and Odyssey Marine Exploration chummed the waters over HMS Victory 1744 with the bait of a free market solution to a Government problem and perhaps treasure for the Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Jeremy Hunt took the meeting, and the bait and David Cameron’s Government has been hooked by the Tampa treasure hunters ever since. We are about to see if a Government led by Theresa May is any different.
thePipeLine has repeatedly approached both Mr Hunt and Lord Lingfield via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Health, Mr Hunts constituency office and the Maritime Heritage Foundation, with a series of questions about the extent of their personal and political relationship, and the precise details of what was discussed at the July 2010 “constituency meeting”. So far neither Mr Hunt, nor Lord Lingfield has chosen to reply.