The government has refused to deny that Rupert Murdoch asked Theresa May to reappoint Michael Gove to the cabinet or face a bad press in his newspaper titles, insisting that cabinet roles are selected on âmerit and experienceâ.
Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, wrote to May last month to inquire whether Murdoch had sought any influence over cabinet appointments and Goveâs future.
In the governmentâs response, Damian Green, the first secretary of state, did not address Watsonâs questions about Murdoch directly but said that decisions about cabinet and ministerial roles were taken by the prime minister alone.
Green said in a letter: âAll those appointed by Her Majesty the Queen to cabinet and ministerial roles are selected by the prime minister based on their merit and experience, drawing on each memberâs best talent. The decision is the prime ministerâs alone. Your email raised the important issue of transparency about meetings with senior media executives.
âGovernment ministers are fully transparent about such meetings, but I observe that the Labour party has still failed to publish any information about shadow cabinet membersâ meetings with senior media executives since Jeremy Corbyn became leader â including your own meetings.â
Labour insiders insist the delay in publishing details of meetings with media executives is due to an administrative issue and that it will be resolved soon.
Watson said people would draw their own conclusions about the lack of a denial regarding Murdoch asking for Gove to be reappointed. The deputy Labour leader said he enquired about Murdochâs influence because it had been suggested to him that the media mogul asked for Gove to return to the cabinet.
âI asked Theresa May to deny a deeply worrying allegation that had been made to me about her and she refused to do so,â Watson said. âItâs such an easy thing to deny – unless itâs true. People will draw their own conclusions.
âWith 21st Century Foxâs bid for Sky being considered by the government right now, questions about Rupert Murdochâs influence over Theresa May were already being asked. This makes them all the more relevant.â
Gove returned to the cabinet as environment secretary in June following the general election, which led to the Conservativeâs majority disappearing. This was less than a year after May fired Gove as justice secretary on the back of his ill-fated attempt to lead the Conservative party.
Following his departure from the cabinet, Gove was hired as a columnist by the Times, which is owned by Murdochâs News Corp, on a reported Â£150,000 a year. Gove then became embroiled in a row earlier this year when it was reported that Murdoch was in the room when he interviewed the new US president, Donald Trump.
Gove has spoken of his admiration for Murdoch in the past, telling the Leveson inquiry into press ethics in 2012 that the media mogul was âone of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 yearsâ.
Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, is in the process of deciding whether to refer to the Competition and Markets Authority a Â£11.7bn bid from 21st Century Fox for the 61% of Sky that it does not own. Fox is controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James.
Bradley has said she is âmindedâ to refer the deal to the CMA due to concerns about media plurality raised by Ofcom, the media regulator, in a report about the proposed takeover.
A consultation about the deal closed on Friday. Bradleyâs Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is now considering the submissions before announcing a final decision.
Foxâs lawyers, Allen & Overy, said in a letter to DCMS that it was âconfidentâ a decision could be made in the âcoming daysâ.
The letter, published on Tuesday, dismissed criticism from a group of senior MPs about Ofcomâs handling of the takeover as âflagrant political attempts to interfere in the regulatory process and its timingâ. The MPs, including former Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat Sir Vince Cable, said Ofcom made a âserious legal errorâ in its report and could face a judicial review unless the government orders a full investigation into the threat to broadcasting standards from the deal.
However, Allen & Overy said in its letter: â21CF [21st Century Fox] trusts that the secretary of state will dismiss these flagrant political attempts to interfere in the regulatory process and its timing, which are in stark contrast to the respect for the independence of Ofcom that the authors of the letter had until recently promulgated.
âBy doing so, 21CF is confident that the secretary of state should be able to reach a final decision on a reference to the CMA in the coming days, thereby avoiding any further delay to the timetable for concluding the regulatory review of the proposed transaction.â
Miliband and Cable are longstanding critics of the Murdochs and the prospect of them controlling Sky. Cable, the former business secretary, was forced to hand over responsibility for assessing the Murdochsâ failed 2010 bid for Sky after telling undercover Daily Telegraph reporters that he was at war with the media mogul.
In response to the letter, Miliband said: âClearly the Murdochs are rattled by the rightful scrutiny their bid and their corporate record are receiving. The secretary of state must not bow to the outrageous attempts to intimidate her by the Murdochs.â