The end of the road? Even Huhne's rivals aren't writing him off
Ability to focus on his job even as a scandal gathered around him isn't the only talent that could see him through
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Saturday 04 February 2012
Normally, a resignation over an issue so serious as the one that caused Chris Huhne's downfall would spell the end of a politician's career. Yet both friends and rivals are refusing to write off the 57-year-old Liberal Democrat MP. "He still has a lot of fire in his belly," one close ally said yesterday.
Mr Huhne is a fighter. The former business journalist built up a successful City firm after starting in an empty office with just a telephone in it.
In politics, too, he never lacked ambition. In his second run for the Lib Dem leadership in 2007, he came within a whisker of beating Nick Clegg after a late surge in his favour. It was agonisingly too late for him; he lost by a mere 511 votes and would have won if postal votes that arrived after the deadline had been allowed. So we could easily now be talking about the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Although Mr Huhne is seen by some as a lone wolf, his relationship with Mr Clegg is closer than it looked. True, the Huhne campaign team branded him "Calamity Clegg" during the leadership election. But once the contest was over, he put his disappointment to one side and rallied behind the victor.
He may have looked like an one-man band when he had public rows with the Conservatives since the Coalition was formed. He twice infuriated Tory ministers at Cabinet meetings – by attacking the anti-Clegg propaganda during last May's referendum on the voting system and David Cameron's veto that never was at the European Union summit last December. He wasn't afraid to go public in his criticism of the Tories. But he wasn't ploughing his own furrow and had cleared his lines with Mr Clegg first, the two men agreeing that Mr Huhne could say things that the Deputy Prime Minister could not.
Senior Tories acknowledge that Mr Huhne is a heavy hitter; even those who don't warm to him personally admit to a grudging respect. One who will not shed too many tears about his Cabinet departure, however, is George Osborne. The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary stood up to the Chancellor during the government-wide spending review and forced through his plans for a legally binding target to reduce UK carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2025, the toughest in the world. He had to appeal over Mr Osborne's head to Mr Cameron, warning him bluntly that his pledge to create "the greenest government ever" was at risk. It worked.
Mr Huhne was regarded as an effective minister. Politicians and officials admired his "nerves of steel", ability to "compartmentalise" and carry on as normal when the threat of prosecution hung over him since last May.
Whether he has a future in politics now depends on the decision of a court. If he is cleared, his prospects will look very different. No doubt Mr Clegg would want him back inside the Cabinet tent as soon as possible. But the clock will have ticked on towards the next election and so another scenario might beckon. "He is savvy and highly intelligent, capable of corralling support among the party's grassroots, and potentially destabilising the leadership," said Benjamin Ramm, editor of the independent magazine The Liberal. "With Simon Hughes [the Lib Dem deputy leader] co-opted by the Cabinet – despite not being a minister – and left-leaning Tim Farron bound to loyalty by his role as party president, Huhne may yet become a figurehead for the dissenting grassroots."
Although Mr Huhne contributed to the Orange Book of centre-right leaning Lib Dems which dominate the leadership, his background in the Social Democratic Party which broke away from Labour in the early 1980s gives him strong centre-left credentials. Instinctively, he would have preferred a deal with Labour after the 2010 election resulted in stalemate. The parliamentary numbers were not there then but they might be next time. There are serious figures in all three main parties who believe another hung parliament is the most likely outcome in 2015. Some of the anger Labour felt towards the Lib Dems at joining forces with the Tories has cooled. Bridges between Labour and the Lib Dems are being quietly built.
If the Lib Dems look likely to lose half their 57 seats next time – as the opinion polls suggest now – there could be pressure on Mr Clegg to fall on his sword before 2015. Although Mr Clegg dismisses the prospect now, he might yet be tempted by an offer to become Britain's European Commissioner. A cleared Mr Huhne would then be a very serious candidate to succeed him as Lib Dem leader. He should not be written off yet.
The reshuffle who's in – and who isn't
For aficionados of political trivia, Ed Davey will be a popular choice as the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
Which cabinet minister won an award for rescuing a woman who fell on to the Clapham Junction tracks in the face of an oncoming train?
Which cabinet minister went to school with shadow Chancellor Ed Balls? Which cabinet minister used to work as a pork pie maker?
The answers are Mr Davey, who, after a wide-ranging but so far low-profile political career, has emerged as one of the Lib Dems' most significant players in government.
The son of a solicitor and a teacher who both died when he was a child, Mr Davey, now 46, was educated at Nottingham High School, the alma mater of Ken Clarke, Geoff Hoon and Mr Balls.
He studied PPE at Oxford at the same time as David Cameron, but they were at different colleges.
He was elected to Parliament in 1997 by just 56 votes and became minister of consumer affairs in 2010.
Narrowly missed out on a ministerial job in 2010 and was always an obvious candidate to move up into a ''proper'' government job. As Nick Clegg's former parliamentary Private Secretary he knows where Lib Dem bodies are buried and will still be a source of private advice to the leader.
Has been a regular visitor to the Deputy Prime Minister over the past few months and many suggested Mr Huhne's departure might allow him to return to Government. But not this time. It is still likely that he will get a job – probably a wide-ranging role in the Cabinet Office – when Mr Cameron carries out a wider reshuffle expected later this year.
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