Andreas Whittam Smith: Why I'm backing Chris Huhne

What I find most refreshing in his manifesto is the understanding of business activity
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The Independent Online

Chris Huhne would make an effective leader of the Liberal Democrats. But before I make the case, I must declare an interest: I have liked and admired Mr Huhne ever since we worked together on this newspaper more than a decade ago. So when he announced his candidacy I wrote him a note of support and sent a small contribution to his election expenses.And now that a poll among Liberal Democrat members has surprisingly showed him defeating Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell in the decisive second round of voting, I can even pat myself on the back and say how prescient I was.

I had better also say that I believe him to be honest and trustworthy, no small quality in contemporary politics. The Daily Telegraph headed a leading article: "Huhne takes the lead in spite of duplicity". That is a very damaging statement for a newspaper to make about anybody. I don't suppose Mr Huhne will be bothered to sue for libel, but he would have a good cause. For what proof did the newspaper offer? Chiefly that instead of dismissing as irrelevant his rival Simon Hughes' deceitful accounts of his sexuality or passing over them in discreet silence, he "sententiously" declared that his colleague had apologised for misleading people. I'm afraid that isn't what duplicitous means.

Comparing the manifestos published by Mr Huhne and Sir Ming, I am struck by the greater decisiveness of the former. This difference comes through on a range of subjects. Despite Sir Ming's effective criticism of the Iraq war since hostilities began, he dithered, for instance, over whether to join the anti-war demonstration alongside his then leader, Charles Kennedy.

He was worried that many participants were "viscerally anti-American", rather than just opposed to President George Bush. With his good manners intact, Sir Ming stayed at home. Mr Huhne marched. What do they say now? Sir Ming does not want to set a firm timetable for the withdrawal of British troops. Mr Huhne says the invasion was illegal and that is why British and American troops are part of the problem, not the solution. Consequently: "We should set a timetable for withdrawal by the end of this year."

The greater clarity of Mr Huhne's thinking is also demonstrated by what the two candidates say about taxation. Both want the tax burden on low incomes significantly reduced. Both want - and here I quote Sir Ming's words - the "tax system ... actively deployed to discourage environmentally damaging activity and reward environmentally beneficial behaviour and sustainable technologies". Both understand this much better than David Cameron, the new Tory leader. Both believe in a redistributive taxation system but, typically, Mr Huhne goes one step further when he states unambiguously: "People at the top should also pay more".

However, what I find most refreshing in Mr Huhne's manifesto is his understanding of, and regard for, business activity. He reminds us that for 100 years, from the 1830s to the 1930s, the Liberal Party and its predecessors was the party of ambitious, growing businesses. The entrepreneurs who built vast industries in the Midlands and North were, for the most part, Liberals. And that is where Mr Huhne would like to position the Liberal Democrats again.

In this, Mr Huhne has the advantage of having been a successful businessman himself. He left The Independent in 1994 to found an enterprise in the City which provides a service that scientifically measures the risks of investing in different countries. Three years later it merged with the venerable New York firm, Fitch Ratings and the two now operate around the world in 50 locations. Business experience in British politics, in contrast to the American and French systems, is an extremely rare commodity. The Prime Minister? - former barrister. The Chancellor of the Exchequer? - former lecturer and TV journalist and editor. The Secretary of State for Education? - former economics journalist and Bank of England official. The Secretary of State for Health? - former executive of campaigning charities. Sir Ming? - former barrister. Simon Hughes? - former barrister. Not one of these possesses an ounce of business nous They may be gifted politicians. But in that part of government which is concerned with delivering the services that citizens require from the state, they have little to contribute.

I am not saying that Mr Huhne would be an ally of business in all things. Here is what he says about competition: "We should reinforce our competition law with clear powers to break up companies that hold a dominant position in markets, just as the Sherman Act has long done in the US." Goodness me, I have believed in tough policing of anti-competitive practices for 40 years. That Mr Huhne has the courage to say such things, founded upon a full understanding of how business actually operates, is refreshing and is one of the reasons why I support his bid to lead the Liberal Democrats.