"I've said very clearly that I'm innocent. I intend to fight this in the courts, and I'm confident that the jury will agree with me."
So professed Chris Huhne of the driving license affair that blighted – and has now ended – an esteemed political career in rather undignified fashion.
11 months ago, as the naïve editor of a college magazine, I knocked at a secreted, modest house in the heart of Eastleigh, and found myself wondering whether this was really the office of the now infamous MP. An aide swiftly allayed any fears, directing me towards the seating opposite the uninspiring paintings which cluttered the walls. A tidy occupancy - functional certainly, yet "grey and intense," as Huhne once described supporters of The Liberal Democrat Party he came so close to leading.
It seemed humble surroundings for the owner of seven houses, who earned a basic salary in the region of £135,000 in 2011.
Perhaps it was the contrasting lack of grandeur and flamboyance that led me not to question the sincerity of his plea in a court of law. Indeed, so convincing was Huhne that I was more sceptical of his other comments than this refutation of the strange claims his seemingly revenge-driven ex-wife had made.
Exuding an aura of calm, and with a casual flick of his hand, he then went on to dismiss Sayeeda Warsi's suggestion that he intended to step down from his Eastleigh post. Here was a charming, intelligent and genuinely nice man who had taken the time to be interviewed by a local 18-year-old. Such a serious case of deception seemed unlikely. Fast forward a year, and you see a disgraced ex-Cabinet minister, facing a jail sentence for perverting the course of justice.
He now fulfils the public stereotype of the average politician: a member of the elite privately educated at Westminster College, then at Oxford in PPE, caught out lying like so many before him. The public's perceptions of Huhne can be seen to reflect their confidence in politics, now resting at a dismal low after the expenses scandal, tuition fee debacle and Leveson enquiry.
But as Huhne goes down he drags Liberal Democrat popularity with him. Already despised by students over tuition fees, mocked on the internet for being “sorry,” and accused of being “spineless” by their coalition partners, the party's ratings have plummeted.
Ambition before honesty was the allure for Huhne, and for a good proportion of the public that also stands true for the Lib Dems. Even as Huhne sat chatting to his constituents on that cold Friday night last March - aware of his guilt - he still stoutly defended coalition policy, despite it often contrasting with his own principles. The message I mistakenly took was that he was innocent, and fancied a return to government after the (innocent) verdict was reached.
Nick Clegg's party can be viewed in much the same way. They are at last in government, fulfilling an ambition, but many see the price of power as the compromise of their principles, perhaps even to the point of dishonesty, vis-a-vis Trident, House of Lords reform and tuition fees.
With this latest blow to their credibility, they appear more like the “old parties” Nick Clegg denounced in 2010 than ever before. With many Lib Dem supporters being notorious for tactical voting, viewing the party as an honest alternative to Labour or the Conservatives, the chances of huge losses in 2015 look increasingly likely, in the wake of Huhne's lies.
The real test, perhaps ironically, rests upon what now happens in Huhne's Eastleigh constituency. Ordinarily a fairly safe Lib Dem seat in elections to both the council and Parliament, there is a danger that the by-election will be lost. Throw Nigel Farage, a rejuvenated Labour party and a pressurised David Cameron into the mix, and Clegg must realise damage limitation is the only positive outcome.
A negative outcome, meanwhile, could potentially pre-empt a knock out political blow in 2015.Reuse content