The saga of Chris Huhne’s marital collapse, dodged speeding points and bare-faced mendacity is not just a personal tragedy. As the former cabinet minister and one-time Liberal Democrat leadership contender faces prison for perverting the course of justice, the Eastleigh by-election precipitated by his spectacular fall from grace is shaping up to be a political bloodbath.
There is no upside for the Liberal Democrats from the Huhne debacle. Judging by the opinion polls, the exigencies of coalition have left the party facing the possibility of electoral oblivion in 2015. That it provided the rare spectacle of a British secretary of state being forced from office by a criminal charge will hardly help. At the same time, the departure of so big a beast as Mr Huhne – flexible morals and all – will be sorely felt by the party leadership. The suggestion that Nick Clegg might welcome the departure of so credible a rival is simplistic. In the struggle to transform the Liberal Democrats from an electoral cul-de-sac of permanent opposition to a grown-up party of government, Mr Clegg needs all the top-quality talent he can find.
Nor are the specifics of Eastleigh entirely encouraging. Despite Mr Huhne’s near-4,000 majority, it is far from certain that the Liberal Democrats will retain the seat, given the public anger at his repeated professions of innocence and 11th-hour guilty plea.
The hope for Mr Clegg et al is that the Liberal Democrats’ strong local support will outweigh both the general qualms about coalition and the specific outrage about Mr Huhne. Perhaps. After all, even as the party lost council seats hand over fist in last year’s local elections, it gained two in Eastleigh. The risks are great, though. Even with so obvious a scapegoat, the loss of the seat would be a body blow to Mr Clegg’s efforts to convince his party that coalition government, although a hard road, is still one worth walking.
Meanwhile, if there is one certainty in the Eastleigh by-election, it is that the Conservatives will fight tooth and nail to win it. Not only do Tory optimists point out that Mr Huhne’s increased majority in 2010 owed a lot to tactical voting by Labour supporters. For the rank and file, smarting from the Liberal Democrat “betrayal” of their voting against boundary reform last week, there is also a personal dimension.
For David Cameron, too, victory is about more than just one extra MP. Although the Tory leaders faces insurrection on all sides, the plotters are a fragmented lot, exercised over everything from Europe to gay marriage. The only common thread is their scepticism as to whether Mr Cameron can deliver an outright victory in 2015. If the party cannot win in Eastleigh, even when the far-from-secure incumbent is swapping the Commons chamber for a prison cell, the forces of sedition will coalesce more dangerously than ever.
Labour will also campaign in Hampshire. But with less than 10 per cent of the last vote, it is no serious contender. Eastleigh is, then, all set to be a head-to-head scrap between the coalition partners, further destabilising an ever more fractious relationship. There is another possible rogue element, however – and that is Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader has already contested the seat once, way back in 1994, and has not ruled out trying again. We challenge him to do so. Last month’s promise of an EU referendum pulled the political rug out from under Ukip’s blandishments to the Tory right. Mr Farage claims his party has more to offer. Now is his chance to prove it.
With so much riding on its outcome, the fight over Eastleigh will be fierce. Indeed, the political fallout from Mr Huhne’s 10-year-old traffic offence is only just beginning.