The pressure on Chris Huhne will increase today as Labour accuses him of trying to duck MPs' questions on the Government's strategy for cutting Britain's carbon emissions. The Liberal Democrat Energy and Climate Change Secretary is fighting to save his Cabinet career after allegations that he allowed another motorist to take points on their licence for a speeding offence he committed in 2003.
His former wife, Vicky Pryce, has claimed that he "pressurised people" to take on the points in order to avoid a driving ban – which, if proved, could result in a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Yesterday Mr Huhne put a brave face on the initial inquiries being made by Essex police into the affair. "These allegations are incorrect. They have been made before and found to be untrue and I very much welcome the referral to the police as it will draw a line under the matter," he told the BBC.
Nevertheless, his difficulties mounted amid suggestions it would have been difficult for his wife to have been the driver caught speeding because, according to a newspaper report, on the night the offence was committed she was in central London at 6.30 when she addressed the London School of Economics and went on to attend a dinner which finished after 10pm. Mr Huhne's flight was thought to have been scheduled to land at 10.23 in Stansted.
Labour accused the minister of trying to keep out of the spotlight by smuggling out his crucial statement on carbon budgets in a written Commons answer today. The Opposition will lodge a formal request with the Speaker John Bercow for an oral statement.
Any suggestion that Mr Huhne is not carrying out his Cabinet post as normal could undermine his position. Meg Hillier, the shadow Energy Secretary, said last night: "I am demanding that Chris Huhne comes to the House in person to make his announcement and answer to MPs. The fourth carbon budget will have a massive impact on British households, jobs and firms. It beggars belief that he is considering slipping out the announcement as a written statement."
Ironically, Mr Huhne's announcement is seen as "good news" for him to trumpet after he won a Cabinet battle against the Chancellor George Osborne and the Business Secretary Vince Cable, who were worried about the impact on business of his radical plan to make Britain a world leader in cutting emissions. The blueprint, detailing cuts up to 2027, will put the nation on track to reduce emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050. However, Mr Osborne and Mr Cable have won a review clause under which there could be a rethink of the UK's targets if other European Union countries do not make similar commitments to combat global warming.
Yesterday David Cameron and Nick Clegg gave Mr Huhne their backing. Asked whether or not he had confidence in Mr Huhne, the Prime Minister said: "He denied the allegations." His spokesman said Mr Cameron still had "full confidence" in Mr Huhne, while allies of Mr Clegg said he worked on the premise that people were "innocent until proved guilty".
That could mean him being allowed to keep his job even if the police get involved. Mr Clegg would have to be consulted before Mr Cameron sacked any Liberal Democrat minister. Insiders believe that there are two options – Mr Huhne riding out the storm or deciding that his position is untenable and resigning.
Detective Superintendent Tim Wills of Essex Police said: "We take any allegations of criminal offences extremely seriously. However, an investigation will not be formally launched until our enquiries show that an offence has been committed. This is the work that my team and I will be carrying out this week."
Taking points: the crime many commit
* Statistics, anecdotal evidence and bitter experience of human nature all point to there being almost industrial numbers of people willing to take someone else's driving penalty points. Analysis by the AA of the number of people with points on their licences shows some 583,000 drivers who have six to their name. Yet the number with nine points falls away to 91,000 and only 30,000 are banned with 12 or more points. While there is a temptation to think the safety, financial and moral lessons have sunk in, explaining why so few go on to collect nine, the AA suspects the truth is that many people elect to commit fraud by persuading another driver to take the rap.
* "The fact we have more than six-times as many on six as nine would suggest some of them get other people to take their points," said Edmund King, AA President. "Some of them may have learnt their lesson and slowed down, but the fact the jump down from six to nine is so great, one can surmise not all of them do."
* While there are comparatively few cases where a driver and accomplice have been charged and convicted, partly as most cases are thought to be kept in the family, there was a scam in which students offered to take points for a fee of £150.
However, the latest generation of speed cameras increases the chances of cheating drivers being found out.
Old-style cameras mostly recorded the rear of the car, but newer versions face the front and take pictures in enough detail that police can distinguish between male and female, black and white, balding and full-haired.