A shadow had hung over Chris Huhne's position as Energy Secretary ever since it became clear that the police were taking more than a voyeuristic interest in the allegations made by his now ex-wife. So when the Director of Public Prosecutions announced yesterday morning that charges were to be brought, the wheels of the government machine moved about as swiftly and smoothly as is possible in such circumstances.
The announcement was made; Mr Huhne tendered his resignation. The Prime Minister accepted it with regret; the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Huhne's party leader praised the outgoing minister's achievements, and another Liberal Democrat, Ed Davey, was promoted to the role to Energy and Climate Change from the Department of Business and Skills. Everything was done and dusted before lunch – including the welcome advancement of Jo Swinson, one of the promising younger Liberal Democrats, who becomes Nick Clegg's parliamentary private secretary.
With Mr Huhne's departure, however, there was a distinct sense of one chapter ending and another beginning. Although David Cameron stressed that Mr Huhne would be welcomed back to government if he cleared his name, his consistent use of the past tense in what was an unusually generous tribute to a member of another party, seemed to be the seal on Mr Huhne's tenure at the Energy Department. But his time there does not deserve to pass into history without the recognition that his departure is a serious loss to a Cabinet of which he was acknowledged to be a highly effective and committed minister.
As the disappointed candidate for Liberal Democrat leader, who was only just pipped to the post by Mr Clegg, Mr Huhne had picked himself up and carried on, apparently without rancour. He wholeheartedly supported his former rival's decision to enter a Coalition, and became – with Vince Cable – a senior minister who allayed the doubts many harboured about the ability of the Liberal Democrats to take their place in government.
In the event, both his personal expertise and his party allegiance proved to be distinct assets, when Mr Cameron found himself unexpectedly forming, and then governing in, a Coalition. As a Liberal Democrat at Energy, Mr Huhne gave the Government a far greener tinge than it would have had if the Conservatives alone had been in power. As an economist and former journalist, he was respected in the business world, as in the world of environmental campaigning, as someone who not only knew his stuff, but got things done. Implementation of Mr Cameron's pledge to "lead the greenest government in history" might have left much to be desired, but it is worth considering how much less impressive the Coalition's green credentials might have been without a Liberal Democrat, and Mr Huhne in particular, to defend them.
Nor did he mince his words in support of Britain taking an active part in Europe. Making common cause with Mr Clegg after Mr Cameron wielded his veto at the EU summit in December, Mr Huhne can take a share of the credit for the more positive position taken by Mr Cameron in Brussels earlier this week. Assured and ambitious, he never shrank from making his voice heard at the Cabinet table.
For all these reasons, Mr Huhne's departure is regrettable. The Coalition would have been, and will be, a different government without him. Even the ablest politician, however, can be felled by failings in personal integrity. Mr Huhne would not be the first, or the last. His future, including his future in politics, will now be decided by the courts.