Saturday, February 04, 2012

Advantage Tory right as Huhne exits stage left

So farewell then, Chris Huhne – well for the time being at any rate, as the erstwhile Energy Secretary quits in order to fight charges of perverting the course of justice in relation to a driving offence committed in 2003.

The leading Liberal Democrat politician was left with no choice but to resign from the Cabinet yesterday after effectively being charged with lying to the police over whether he or his ex-wife was driving at the time of the incident.

Mr Huhne, who continues to deny the charges, will now have to clear his name if he is to stand any chance of resuming what has been an eventful career over the course of less than seven years as an MP.

For now, though, his Lib Dem colleagues will have to manage without his combative presence around the Cabinet table as the curse that has seemed to bedevil the party’s senior figures since the last election strikes again.

They lost their cleverest minister, David Laws, within 16 days of the Coalition taking office, and nearly lost their most well-known, Vince Cable, over his ill-judged pledge to destroy the Murdoch empire – uttered before it succeeded in destroying itself.

Now they have lost their most abrasive in Mr Huhne, the stoutest defender of the party’s interests within the government and, by some distance, the Tory backbenches’ least-favourite Liberal Democrat.

Few Tory tears will be shed at his departure. Right-wing internet bloggers who have had Mr Huhne in their sights for some time were literally cracking open the champagne yesterday morning – and one even posted a video of himself doing so.

The evident Tory glee demonstrates the fact that Mr Huhne’s enforced resignation is likely significantly to alter the balance of power within the Cabinet in their favour.

His successor Ed Davey is a capable minister who deserves his Cabinet promotion - but he is no Chris Huhne, described by one commentator yesterday as a “political bulldozer who would try relentlessly to get his way, and who was not averse to media shenanigans to advance his cause.”

It was Mr Huhne, rather than Nick Clegg, who led the attack on the Tories over their handling of the referendum on the voting system last May, when Mr Cameron gave the green light for a series of bitter personal attacks against the Lib Dem leader.

And it was he who articulated the Lib Dem rage over Mr Cameron’s decision to veto a new EU treaty at the Brussels summit in December.

What gave Mr Huhne a particular degree of authority within the Cabinet was his strong power base within the party as a two-time leadership contender and de facto leader of the party’s social democratic tendency.

He could very well have become his party’s leader instead of Mr Clegg, had not a pre-Christmas postal strike in 2007 led to thousands of votes in his party’s leadership election arriving after the ballot boxes had closed.

Until yesterday, he would have been the likeliest replacement for Mr Clegg were the latter to have been forced out by party activists still grumbling over his decision to join the Coalition.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron, the party’s distinctly Coalition-sceptic president, now looks odds-on for that role, possibly as soon as 2015 in the event of Mr Clegg’s three-way marginal Sheffield Hallam seat turning either red or blue next time round.

The short-term impact, then, of Mr Huhne’s departure is that it will embolden the Tory right and make this look even more obviously a Conservative-led government than it already is.

This in turn will be good news for Labour and Ed Miliband, whose essential line of attack on the Coalition is that it is a Tory government in all but name, and who this week restored some of his party’s sagging morale by putting Mr Cameron on the back foot over bankers’ bonuses.

The real nightmare scenario for the government, though, would come if Mr Huhne were to go to jail – forcing a by-election in his highly marginal seat of Eastleigh which would pitch the Lib Dems and the Tories against eachother.

And the potential consequences of that for the Coalition hardly need spelling out.

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