'Chris who?': Huhne turns tables as leadership bid gathers pace

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Indy Politics

Chris Huhne, the coming man of the Liberal Democrat leadership race, yesterday paid homage to the party's past by visiting one of the great figures of Liberalism in Britain, Sir Cyril Smith, the 78-year-old former MP for Rochdale, who weighed 21 stone in his Westminster heyday.

It was another clever move in a smart campaign. Mr Huhne, 51, the youngest of the three challengers, began the race as the "Chris Who?" candidate until one poll put him in the lead with 38 per cent compared to 34 per cent for the front-runner Sir Menzies Campbell and 27 per cent for Simon Hughes.

Mr Huhne, who entered Parliament only eight months ago as the MP for Eastleigh, has come from nowhere to prominence in a remarkably short time, which some compare to David Cameron's rise to the leadership of the Tory Party.

His odds on winning the race have shortened to make him the favourite with some bookies. But those who regard him as an unknown risk underestimating his established roots in the party when he was an MEP for the South-east of England. The seat covers 82 parliamentary seats, and a fifth of the 73,000 Liberal Democrat members who will elect their leader in time for their Harrogate spring conference on 3 March. "I've had my share of rubber chicken," he said as he headed by car to Rochdale after meeting Liberal Democrat councillors in Manchester.

Today he will be joining Sir Menzies and Mr Hughes for a hustings meeting in Slough, then returning to his old stamping ground of Oxford, where he studied at Magdalen College and was a candidate in 1987 general election. He ran John Patten, the former Tory education secretary, a close second, but had to hand the seat to his colleague Dr Evan Harris. "I took Oxford on and because of my journalistic activities I was read the Riot Act and wasn't able to continue fighting it," he said.

Oxford was the launch pad for his term as an MEP. He was not even thinking about running when he was skiing in Davos at Christmas, and Charles Kennedy resigned. "The worst thing you can say about him is that he's a bit like Gordon Brown, but he's destined to become the prime minister after Blair," said an ally.

The campaign team around him tend to be newer MPs and their aides: David Howarth, the new MP for Cambridge; Lynne Featherstone, the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green; and Susan Cramer, the peer and former London mayoral candidate; Richard Huzzey and Chris Maines, a Bromley, south-east London, councillor who has acted as his driver.

His wife, Vicky, is Greek and in the summer they go to her family home near Athens. He also has a part-share in a property in the south of France, which he bought as a student. He was brought up in London and his boyhood team was Chelsea, but since winning Eastleigh he has split his allegiance with the Saints in nearby Southampton.

They have five children, three grown up, and they also have a family house in Clapham. He made a pile in the City where he built up a team of economists advising pension funds. He is campaigning on a strong environmental ticket and favours a cut in tax relief on pension contributions for the well-off, higher taxes on the activities that cause greenhouse gases and global warming and taxing vacant land banks.

His wife is also an economist, and a senior civil servant at the Department of Trade and Industry, which he would abolish. But that would put his wife out of work. "Yes," he said with a laugh. "The sooner she is in the private sector the better."