John Rentoul: Huhne is the missing green giant

After selling out on tuition fees and Europe and losing their eco warrior, the Lib Dems look flimsier than ever

Liberal Democrat MPs were talking to a man dressed as a bumble bee when they heard that Chris Huhne was to be charged with perverting the course of justice. They were at that curse of middle management, an awayday, in the Eastbourne constituency of Stephen Lloyd, an otherwise blameless backbencher. Lloyd took a session on how to run local campaigns, and introduced his fellow MPs to a character called Barnaby the Bee, the symbol of "the Eastbourne buzz". During a break in which they talked about Huhne's resignation, some participants wondered if they could borrow the costume to evade the photographers outside and make their escape.

In fact, the news of the Director of Public Prosecution's decision had started to filter through the assembly in the previous session, just as the participants agreed that the environment was one of their most important "integrity identifiers". Which was piquant, given Huhne's forcefulness in pushing climate change policies.

The main consequence of Huhne's cabinet departure will be further to weaken the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. In an interview in The House magazine last week, Nick Clegg explained that, having shown that coalition government can work, he thought the voters now understood that, "just because we sit next to each other in the House of Commons on the government benches does not mean that we are identical; far from it". Then, just as he starts to talk more about differentiation, he loses his most differentiating colleague.

Huhne was so keen on the leader's strategy that he differentiated himself from George Osborne in cabinet meetings. This earned useful headlines for a party whose presence in the Tory-led government is often forgotten. "Chris was always willing to throw a punch," says a colleague, half-admiringly. "And he was willing to do a bit of that around the green thing."

The official line on Clegg's behalf is that Huhne did a necessarily abrasive job of advancing the green cause, but that now there is scope for a more diplomatic approach. Certainly, Huhne brought out many Conservatives in an anaphylactic rash. Tories tend to be sceptical about climate change and, even if they accept the science, they support the Chancellor's line, set out in his party conference speech last year: "We're going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe."

In holding the coalition together as austerity cuts into the politics of climate change, a lower profile and a more consensual style might be a more productive way forward. Either that, or the Lib Dems' green profile simply sinks into the welcoming arms of the Treasury.

No, no, say Lib Dem strategists. "As we move into a phase of more confident differentiation," one of them tells me, "we will be throwing more punches, in a more co-ordinated way, hoping to hit the right Tory on the nose at the right time." The implication is that Huhne could be a counterproductive brawler in a Queensberry bout, but that Davey, a "hard worker", will get the job done. He is credited with a subtle and non-confrontational operation to "kill" the Beecroft report's recommendation last year that small companies should be allowed to hire and fire at will.

There is no question that he is clever. He is from the same cohort of Oxford firsts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics as David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and Ed Balls.

Talking of clever, though, why did Clegg not use this chance to bring back David Laws, one of the stars of the coalition in his 17 days as Chief Secretary to the Treasury before his resignation at the end of May 2010?

Apparently, Laws did not want the Energy and Climate Change post, which was the only cabinet vacancy, and that, in turn, was because David Cameron did not want to rush into a larger reshuffle. The Prime Minister supposedly does not want his government to fall victim to "ministerial churn", which he sees as another lesson that he has learnt from what Tony Blair did wrong. (For the "heir to Blair", Cameron seems to learn as many negative as positive lessons from The Master.) This good-government reluctance to wield the axe is slightly unconvincing, as the delay is likely to be only a few months. Insiders have the "proper reshuffle" already pencilled in for "later in the year". But it may be politically prudent to put off Laws' return. The longer Cameron can delay the moment when he starts to accumulate the sacked, the overlooked and the other disappointed on the back benches, the better for him.

So Laws must wear his high-vis bib doing community service for slightly longer, with Clegg's praise ringing in his ears: "What I would like to see David do is to be close to the centre of power in one shape or form." But not in the Cabinet, yet.

Ed Davey it is, then. Although he is unlikely to do as much to mark out the Lib Dems' territory as Huhne the bruiser did. For that reason, Huhne's departure must compound the problem from which the party is already suffering: its difficulty in answering the question, "What is that party for?"

Whether or not you agree with the policies, the Lib Dems have sold out their principles on tuition fees and Europe. Their distinctiveness on civil liberties, muffled before the election by a David Davis-inspired burglary of their property, has since been lost in the reality-based compromises of control orders under another name and other backslidings. Clegg's income tax cut, to "take people out of tax altogether", is popular, but looks awfully like a thin veneer of supposed social justice on a familiar Tory theme of tax cuts.

Apart from that, all the Lib Dems have is the environment. Hence their agreement in Eastbourne, before being buzzed by Barnaby the Bee, that they should make more of it. But at a time of economic stringency, and without their most aggressive green champion, that does not sound like a totally convincing strategy.