How Chris 'Mr Rhino-hide' Huhne became an endangered species

An angry woman has repaid an abrasive, ambitious man. Matt Chorley and Jane Merrick report

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When he opened his well-worn ministerial box, stuffed with cabinet papers and letters to sign, in his central London flat on Thursday evening, the perennially bullish Chris Huhne did not allow himself to consider that it could be for the last time.

He had always protested his innocence, publicly and privately. Even yesterday, after charges had been brought, he was still telling friends "I don't fear prison" because justice would prevail. He is even plotting a cabinet comeback if he is cleared.

Some call it professionalism, others call it arrogance. But he was confident he would not be charged. While the rest of his party, the Government and the press tied themselves up in knots on Thursday evening speculating about his fate at the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, Huhne settled at his desk and went through his papers, as he had done almost every evening since joining the Cabinet 633 days earlier.

Sixty miles away, there was a very different atmosphere in Eastbourne's Hydro Hotel where a Liberal Democrat "away day" was in full swing. Huhne had left the gathering mid-afternoon when it was announced that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was ready to reveal his decision at 10 the next morning on whether to bring charges of perverting the course of justice against Huhne and his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce.

Colleagues and friends – veterans of the frequent turbulence that seems to disturb the public and private lives of Liberal Democrat politicians – digested the prospect that one of the party's biggest stars could become the first cabinet minister to be charged with a criminal offence.

To lighten the mood, the affable Bath MP Don Foster did a "very funny" comedy turn, hosting a mock awards ceremony in one of the hotel's banqueting halls. The winner of "Nick Clegg's pet" was Norman Lamb, who would be promoted within hours from adviser to the DPM to Business minister. Slipping away from the seaside festivities, Clegg made a call to Huhne during which the pair played out various scenarios – forcing the Eastleigh MP to contemplate the worst. Huhne made it clear that if charges were brought, he would quit the Cabinet.

The brief but friendly phone call marked a new chapter in Clegg and Huhne's relationship. Friends for 15 years, having grown close as Lib Dem MEPs finding their way in Brussels, the 2007 party leadership contest pitched them against one another. They clashed as bitter rivals. Since the formation of the coalition they had been on cordial, yet never close, terms. But, given their long history together – Huhne, with Pryce, had been the only party colleague to attend Clegg's wedding to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez in 2000 – the Thursday night phone call drew them closer again.

"Sometimes Chris can be brash or abrasive, but no one wants to see their friend charged by the police," says a close colleague of both men. Another aide noted: "Nick's response to all of this has been quite a human reaction. On a human level, this is a tragedy."

On Friday morning, after a refreshing night's sleep, Huhne finished his ministerial papers, ate breakfast and waited for the CPS call that would seal his fate. When it came, shortly after 9am, his partner, Carina Trimingham, the woman he left his wife for, was near by for support. Two advisers were also in the flat to help deal with the growing media scrum outside. At 10.03am, the four in the flat watched in silence as Starmer delivered his statement on television. Calm, lucid, composed and with no hint of emotion, Huhne prepared for the cameras as if he were on a routine ministerial visit to a wind farm. "He was resigning from a job he wanted all his life," said a friend. "But it was business as usual. He is a total pro. He was more concerned about the wider implications for the party."

When Huhne read out his short statement to the TV cameras, his voice cracked slightly, but he quickly regained his composure. The same had been true when he calmly broke the news to Pryce that their marriage was over during half-time of a televised World Cup match in June 2010.

And, again, Huhne remained utterly composed when the original story broke that would trigger this extraordinary series of events. On 8 May 2011, the front page of The Sunday Times claimed that he had asked "someone close to him" to accept penalty points on his behalf – which would later turn out to be his wife. That day, Huhne was among senior Lib Dems gathered in their Cowley Street headquarters for a weekend strategy meeting and a copy of the paper had been left on the table. Those present were staggered that he "appeared completely unmoved by the headline". As Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, said on Radio 4's Any Questions on Friday: "Chris Huhne has got nerves of steel." Huhne had been a member of the coalition negotiating team because he "is a thug and can go into a room, set out a position and get an outcome," Farron added.

Those nerves of steel saw him, after less than a year as an MP, take on Sir Menzies Campbell for the leadership in 2006. The elder statesman believed Clegg and Huhne would not run, and at one meeting in Campbell's office, Huhne, shaking Campbell's hand, agreed he "probably wouldn't" stand. Less than an hour later Huhne returned saying he intended to run.

Huhne went on to lose badly, yet bounced back to challenge Clegg for the leadership in 2007. It is known that the 511 votes separating Clegg and Huhne for the leadership would have been cancelled out if postal votes caught up in the Christmas rush had arrived on time. Some close to Huhne believed he was "robbed" of the leadership. The man himself simply moved on to the next objective. Chris Bowers noted in his biography of Clegg that Huhne had "no shortage of self-confidence" – something of an understatement. A long-serving colleague adds: "Chris is very robust. He isn't called rhino-hide Huhne for nothing." He famously faced down George Osborne in Cabinet over Tory attacks on Clegg during the AV campaign and compared the Conservative Party chairwoman, Baroness Warsi, to Goebbels.

And so, on Friday, after the charges were brought, there was more steel, and little trace of emotion – apart from a vow to clear his name.

In London, a drained-looking Pryce, clutching a coffee cup, posed for TV cameras but declined to comment, issuing a statement through her lawyers to say she hoped for a "quick resolution" to the case. She took a comforting phone call from Clegg's wife, Miriam, who offered her a place to stay with their children.

There were reports yesterday that their three children "loathe" their father and that one of them is even changing their name from Huhne. Yet the other two spent time with their father over Christmas and see him often.

On Pryce's part, it is easy to understand her anger that what she thought was "a unit" of her and Huhne – displayed gregariously in lavish winter parties at their Clapham mansion – ended so abruptly and coldly.

A response, one might say, that is the polar opposite to her husband's. Perhaps the very steel that enabled Huhne to rise to the top of politics has proved his undoing.

The would-be leaders: The curse of Kennedy strikes again

As Chris Huhne spends his first weekend with a criminal prosecution hanging over him, it will not have escaped the notice of Charles Kennedy that the former energy secretary is the last of the leadership candidates who jostled to succeed him in 2006 whose political careers since then have crashed and burned.

Mr Kennedy was forced out by a party coup six years ago last month after admitting that he was an alcoholic. One by one, each of the men who stood to succeed him have seen their own ambitions come unstuck, in what could be termed the "Curse of Kennedy". The ousted Lib Dem leader spent the weeks of the 2006 leadership contest deeply hurt and outraged that these four pretenders – at least two of whom, Simon Hughes and Sir Menzies Campbell, he suspected of contributing to his downfall – could dare inherit his crown.

First, Mark Oaten, within days of putting himself forward for leader in January 2006, was forced to withdraw after it was revealed that he had had a liaison with a male prostitute. Days after that, Mr Hughes, MP for Bermondsey, admitted he had lied about his homosexuality, and his leadership hopes melted away. Mr Hughes is now deputy leader of the Lib Dems, but he has failed to secure a ministerial seat in the coalition. Sir Menzies eventually beat Mr Huhne in the final run-off to be crowned leader – but his tenure was continually dogged by questions about his age and fitness for the job, and he stood down after just 16 months.

Only Mr Huhne, who is referred to by even his closest political allies as "rhino-hide Huhne", appeared to have been left unscathed by the bitter contest in the winter of 2006, leaving him to fight Nick Clegg for the leadership in autumn 2007. Today, with Mr Huhne's career in tatters and a court appearance next week, Mr Kennedy could be forgiven for remembering Enoch Powell's famous adage: "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

Jane Merrick