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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: Somebody's got to stick up for Chris Huhne...

He would have made an infinitely braver champion than Nick Clegg of his party's core beliefs

This may never qualify as one of history's most intriguing "What ifs?", alongside such classics as "What if Churchill had been killed by the New York taxi that knocked him down on Fifth Avenue in 1931?" But let's have some escapist fun, and ask it all the same. What if Chris Huhne, who faces a lethal vehicular threat of his own, had beaten Nick Clegg to his party's leadership late in 2007?

Our politics might look unrecognisably different today had a left-leaning Liberal Democrat leader, rather than a closeted One-Nation Tory, been in control of post-election negotiations. We might even have a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, with all that implies about less savage austerity measures, no nonsensical NHS reforms or vindictive targeting of the vulnerable, etc.

The wistful thing here is that Chris Huhne did beat Mr Clegg. In our lower key version of the hanging chads, the votes that would have given him victory were delayed in the Christmas post, and arrived too late to be counted. After being declared the loser by slither and learning that irksome fact, Mr Huhne was more resigned than Al Gore. He graciously accepted the result, saying that Clegg "won fair and square on the rules...". Those who view him only as a ruthlessly self-interested jackal should remember that.

For the want of some mail, an empire was lost. History can turn on the weeniest, most haphazard of things, and Mr Huhne's may shortly turn on the Sunday Times's curious decision to hand the police its email exchange with his former wife Vicky Pryce about the 2003 speeding affair which seems increasingly likely to end his Cabinet career.

If this results in him being charged with perverting the course of justice, by inveigling Ms Pryce to take the rap in order to preserve his licence, he must resign. Mr Clegg, less gracious towards his old rival than Mr Huhne once was to him, made this very plain at the weekend. Even if he is cleared at trial, his unpopularity with Conservatives suggests he will not be invited to return.

All political careers may end in failure, but seldom for as trifling a reason as this. To go down for fiddling expenses, like Mr Huhne's probable replacement David Laws (I know we all revere Lawsy and his intellect, and appreciate the reasons, but fiddling it was) is one thing. To fall for nothing more sinister than a piffling road traffic offence and the natural desire to carry on driving is another.

Tantalisingly enough, if Mr Huhne proves guilty as yet-to-be-charged, this might so easily have been a rare instance of a laudable crime. His Tory colleagues enjoy lecturing us about the sovereign importance of wedlock, and marriage at its root (I read this once on the back of a matchbox) is all about sharing. What finer way to underscore the family values message than by sharing your speeding points with a spouse?

Of course, Mr Huhne isn't in great nick to press this defence, having subsequently left Ms Pryce, the Greek-born economist. One cannot criticise her for wanting payback, and for being possibly the most effectively vengeful Hellenic wife since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in his bath for bringing a concubine home from Troy. Clytemnestra got off scot free, and ruled Mycanae for another seven years with the new king, but as a convicted co-conspirator, but Ms Pryce would not. Her career would inevitably suffer too.

The apparent facts of this case are too well known to need reprising in detail. Suffice it to report that, according to the alleged timings on the night, the only way Ms Pryce could have made it to Stansted Airport from a central London dinner in time to collect her man and be caught speeding by camera on the way back to town, was had she been riding Pegasus.

But that, members of the jury, may yet be a matter entirely for you. If so, what a bloody shame for the pair of them to be brought low by such understandably human urges as the ones to keep a driving licence and to punish an ex for his treachery. And what a shame for those of us who have come to admire the vulpine ultra-leaker not just for his work as Climate Change Secretary, but even more so as one of only three staunch Cabinet defenders (with Vince Cable and Ken Clarke) of the civilised values we watch, with mounting dread, being washed away by a rising tidal wave of Neanderthal right wingery. Whatever his failings, Chris Huhne would have made an infinitely braver champion of his party's core beliefs than the pretty boy wimp over whom he scored that Pyrrhic electoral victory in 2007.

Of course, you cannot condone any perversion of justice, or seriously argue that even this alleged case is too paltry to be worth prosecuting. But you can regret that such grave consequences might arise from such a footling mistake, and say with sympathy for them both: Oh, what a disastrously tangled web they wove/ When from Stansted one of them too swiftly drove.