The Lib Dems are set to deliver a blow to coalition unity tomorrow by refusing to back embattled culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in a vote in the House of Commons.
Labour have called a 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 a move described by party aides 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 any 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 House of Commons on Tuesday evening where there was “not a single dissenting voice” against the plan.
The move will be only the second mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government, after having done so 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 he said 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 back Labour’s motion against Mr Hunt because of that party’s history of “cosy” relations with Rupert Murdoch, according to his spokesman.
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