Nervous Lib Dems search for MP with a clean past to replace Chris Huhne

 

Chris Huhne formally stood down as an MP today – and will shortly lose his Liberal Democrat membership.

As the shamed former minister’s political career came to an abrupt end, his party began the search for a successor to contest the forthcoming by-election in Eastleigh, which it has held since 1994.

In an email to approved candidates, Liberal Democrat headquarters warned them they must have nothing in their past that risked bringing the party “into disrepute”. The candidates  were also warned they would need to cope with “constant pressure and media intrusion”.

Mr Huhne, who faces jail after he admitted lying to avoid a speeding penalty, remained out of sight as the trial began of his former wife, Vicky Pryce. One ally said he had been deeply affected by the episode. He said: “Chris is very shaken by all of it. But he seems most concerned about the impact on his family.”

The man who came within a few hundred votes of becoming the Liberal Democrat leader has accepted that he will have to leave the party. A source said: “I expect him to stand down as a member now. It wouldn’t be a lifetime exclusion – he will have the ability to reapply.”

The Liberal Democrats are outwardly confident about their by-election prospects as they have a sophisticated political machine in Eastleigh and hold all the council seats in the Hampshire constituency. Senior Tories privately admit that their organisation in the area is moribund.

However, both sides admit the fallout from the Huhne scandal on Eastleigh’s voters is hard to calculate. A Liberal Democrat candidate will be selected by the weekend, with the party expected to select a local standard-bearer in an attempt to distance itself from the turmoil surrounding its previous MP, who secured a majority of 3,864 over the Conservatives at the last general election.

The Tories signalled their intention to fight an aggressive campaign against their Coalition partners as the party chairman, Grant Shapps, tore into Mr Huhne’s “lies”. He said Eastleigh’s voters would take a “dim view about having been lied to by their Lib Dem MP”.

The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, dashed speculation he could stand despite the party’s second place 10 weeks ago in the Rotherham and Middlesbrough by-elections. He said: “We already have a dozen excellent people who have put their names forward to stand as the Ukip candidate.”

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