Chris Huhne: 'Private life is private. I have never paraded my wife and children'

The Monday Interview: Liberal Democrat leadership candidate
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Chris Who? He is the other candidate in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. He is not the old familiar figure, Sir Menzies Campbell, nor is he last week's talk of the tabloids, Simon Hughes, and he is not Mark Oaten either. Chris Huhne is the sensible fellow, whose private life is in good order (so far as any of us know) and whose biggest drawback is his relative anonymity.

He is the candidate with almost nothing to lose but his anonymity, but - given the events of the past three weeks - an obvious question is whether there is any scandal he would like to put on the record before it catches up with him. Mr Huhne's answer implies that there is nothing that would open him to a charge of hypocrisy or deceit.

"Like David Cameron, I believe that private life is private," he said. "I have never paraded my wife and children, I have never preached family values, and I'm not claiming to be a saint, but I'm prepared to put up with the scrutiny that will come inevitably from being a candidate."

Yesterday's Mail on Sunday published a photograph of a younger Mr Huhne, with longer, darker hair, taking part in a student demonstration - evidence, perhaps, of a brief dalliance with revolutionary Marxism? "I don't think so," he replied. "At the time, the phrase was 'broad left', which included everything from the Liberals to the Trotskyites. I was in the Oxford University Labour Club. I left the Labour Party in the late 1970s over Europe, unilateralism and nationalisation. I've always been in the political centre."

He is also among the MPs who approached Sir Menzies Campbell a month ago, while Charles Kennedy was clinging to the leadership, to encourage him to run and to promise his support. That is a sore point now for some of those who have stuck by Sir Menzies. Mr Huhne says he meant it when he said it, but he was later persuaded to change his mind, and Sir Menzies generously did not hold him to his promise.

He was skiing in Davos at the start of the crisis that is now afflicting the Liberal Democrats, returning the day after Charles Kennedy resigned. At that point, Mr Huhne thought it "very unlikely" he would enter the race, given that he was a new MP, and that he had already promised to back Sir Menzies. But other MPs persuaded him there were positive advantages to being a new face in politics, lately arrived from the "real" world, he said.

"I had a couple of conversations just on the Sunday with colleagues who rung up and said, 'Look, this is just not an acceptable choice for the party to have Ming, versus Simon, versus Mark, for all sorts of reasons.

"It seems to me that the skills that are required to be the leader of a political party are not necessarily acquired by long service on the green benches of the House of Commons. A lot of the requirements that a leader needs - the team building skills, the media skills, the sense of direction, the attention to detail and on what is plausible - those are part of my skill set.

"We have had for a long time a view among the electorate that they don't want their politician to be just another political apparatchik who have spent their years clawing their way up the greasy pole of the party system. They want people who have some experience of the real world and have done real jobs."

His record as a financial journalist and a City businessman has marked him out as a believer in the free market, and given him the reputation of someone who would convert the Liberal Democrats into a softer version of the Conservative Party. But he does not agree. "That's an entire misreading of my position," he said. His difference with the Tories are "legion", he added, listing them at length. They ranged over tax policies, civil liberties, and much else.

"If you look back at my record, I have always been associated with the centre of the party. When Charles had a really difficult job to do on policy issues, when people thought the party was going to split, the person who was asked to chair the policy group was me. Charles would not have done that if I was associated with one group or another."

He can also cite his vehement opposition to the Iraq war, which included going on the protest march in February 2003, while Sir Menzies fretted about whether it was a good idea. Mr Huhne wants the troops pulled out of Iraq. And having left the Labour Party 25 years ago, partly in protest against the policy of unilateral disarmament, he is now opposed to retaining Trident.

"We need to set a timetable and we should be looking at withdrawal by the end of the year. That I think is do-able. There is accumulating evidence that because of our involvement in the invasion, and the lack of UN support for that, that we are aggravating some of the problems in Iraq instead of resolving them. And we need to tackle the residual legacy of defence decisions which were taken before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We still have troops in Germany and we still have a deterrent, which was designed for a world in which there was a seriously aggressive superpower. I find it very hard to believe that we need to renew Trident."

Until last week, Mr Huhne seemed fated to come third. Then the public wounding of Simon Hughes tipped the odds in favour of his coming second in the opening round, in which case the outcome will depend on whether a majority of those who voted Hughes have named Huhne as their second choice. It is a long shot but just possibly Mr Huhne could be remembered as the man who took on the leadership of his party just 10 months after his career as an MP began.

The CV

BORN: 2 July 1954

FAMILY: Married with five children

EDUCATION: Westminster School, Université de Paris-Sorbonne, Magdalen College, Oxford University


1976-94: Journalist Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday

1994: Founded global rating agency IBCA Ltd

1999: MEP, South East England

2005: MP for Eastleigh