LONDON (Reuters) - The coalition government split along party lines on Wednesday when Liberal Democrats refused to support Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in a vote over his handling of a minister accused of pulling strings for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
The Lib Dems, junior partners in the coalition, abstained in the parliamentary vote on a motion calling on Cameron to order an inquiry into the actions of Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative secretary of state for culture and media.
The Hunt issue has given the Lib Dems an opportunity to mark their differences with the Conservatives, with whom they have had an uneasy relationship since forming the coalition in 2010.
The Lib Dems have seen their popular support slump as they have been forced to go along with unpopular Conservative policies. They fear a catastrophic result in the next election, in 2015, and are looking to score points over their partners.
The Hunt motion, brought by the Labour Party, was defeated because the Conservatives have enough seats to win against Labour even without Lib Dem support. The motion was rejected by 290 votes to 252.
But the decision by Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to instruct his party's 57 lawmakers to abstain shines a stark light on the state of the coalition.
"It's no longer about the culture secretary's judgment, it's about the prime minister's judgment, which is so badly flawed even his deputy won't support him," said Labour leader Ed Miliband during a heated exchange with Cameron in parliament.
The Hunt row is one of many sub-plots in what started last July as a scandal over phone-hacking at a Murdoch newspaper and has escalated into a full-blown political storm because of revelations about government dealings with the Murdoch empire.
While Cameron and Miliband clashed over the Murdoch saga in parliament hours before the vote on the Hunt motion, Clegg was being questioned at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, which Cameron ordered last year because of the hacking scandal.
The prime minister himself is due to testify at the televised inquiry, which is taking place inside a court complex, all day on Thursday.
Britain's most high-profile politicians, including three former prime ministers and several serving ministers, have already appeared at Leveson, as have Murdoch and editors past and present of his numerous British media outlets.
The inquiry has brought out into the open the close and often mutually beneficial relations between generations of British politicians and top people at News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp conglomerate.
"What we are talking about here is the relationships that Conservative politicians and, frankly, Labour politicians have had over the last 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it," Cameron said in answer to Miliband's taunts.
"To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they didn't have that relationship and their abstention tonight is to make that point. And I understand that, it's politics," he said to jeers from the Labour benches.
The Lib Dems were less involved with the Murdochs in the past than the Conservatives and Labour, partly because they were never previously in power and so attracted less media interest.
The Hunt dispute stems from News Corp's bid for full ownership of lucrative pay-TV company BSkyB.
Hunt was appointed in 2010 by Cameron to rule on the bid, replacing senior Lib Dem minister Vince Cable who was stripped of his responsibility for the BSkyB issue after he was secretly taped saying he had "declared war" on Murdoch.
Hunt had expressed public support for the bid at the time he was appointed, but both he and Cameron maintain that he put aside his personal view and was impartial in his handling of it.
In the event, Murdoch abandoned the bid under public pressure at the height of the hacking scandal last summer.
But evidence given at Leveson by Murdoch's son James, who was running the British arm of News Corp at the time of the bid, raised questions over whether Hunt was in fact too close and too helpful to the Murdochs, given his "quasi-judicial" role.
"We are not saying Hunt is guilty of anything, but we do say questions remain," Lib Dem member of parliament Don Foster told Reuters. He said Clegg had advised Cameron to order a probe into whether Hunt had breached the ministerial code of conduct.
"Nick Clegg is saying, look, beforehand I advised you how I think you should handle this, you have not followed my advice, therefore I cannot endorse the decision you have made."
Additional reporting by Tim Castle and Philip Baillie Editing by Maria Golovnina