The Lib Dems are set to deliver a blow to coalition unity on Wednesday by refusing to back the embattled culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in a vote in the House of Commons.
Labour requested the debate for MPs to argue over whether Mr Hunt’s handling of News Corp’s BSkyB
bid should be examined by David Cameron’s adviser on ministers’ interests, Sir Alex Allan.
But all Lib Dem MPs – including senior ministers – are set to abstain in what party aides described as a “plague on both your houses” move.
Nick Clegg, party leader, is concerned that he was not asked for his approval before the prime minister gave his full support to Mr Hunt and ruled out an inquiry.
That decision was made just minutes after the culture secretary gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry on press standards last month. “It was not a decision endorsed by Mr Clegg or by the Lib Dems,” said his spokesman.
Lib Dem MPs agreed the move at a unanimous meeting at the Commons on Tuesday evening where there was “not a single dissenting voice”.
The move will be only the second mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government; the first was against a DUP motion in December 2011 hailing the prime minister’s use of the veto at a European summit.
Don Foster, spokesman for the Lib Dems on culture, said the party strongly supported the way Mr Hunt had handled the BSkyB bid: “He did it by the book.”
But there were still questions to be answered after Mr Hunt’s Leveson appearance, he told the FT, and the prime minister had failed to discuss this with Mr Clegg. “You can’t have collective responsibility if there wasn’t collective decision-making.”
Yet Mr Clegg decided not to vote actively for Labour’s motion against Mr Hunt because of that party’s history of “cosy” relations with Rupert Murdoch, according to the spokesman. “Our attitude is ‘a plague on both their houses’,” he said.
The Lib Dem abstention is likely to prompt accusations of treachery by Conservative backbench MPs who will swing behind Mr Hunt in the debate.
Mr Hunt had admitted at his Leveson hearing that he was sympathetic towards News Corp’s bid for Sky but had acted impartially when given responsibility for it at the end of 2010.
But Labour has demanded an investigation into whether the culture secretary breached the code by failing to give “accurate and truthful information to parliament” over his dealings with News Corp.
Adam Smith, Mr Hunt’s special adviser, resigned after admitting that the number and tone of messages he exchanged with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel about the Sky bid had been inappropriate.
Mr Clegg will give evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Wednesday morning just hours before the Commons debate. Mr Cameron will take the stand on Thursday where he will be cross-examined about the BSkyB bid and his friendships with News International executives.