Chris Huhne: His modest mission: to save the world

A former journalist and City whizz-kid, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary relishes. Matt Chorley meets Chris Huhne

Sunday 23 January 2011 01:00

Chris Huhne's CV is something in which he clearly takes some considerable pride. Journalist; economist; City high flyer; MEP; linguist; economic sage; cabinet minister and, now, saviour of humanity as we know it.

Taking on the police, standing up for eco-protesters, uniting Europe to cut carbon emissions, and sticking the boot into Labour's latest front bench is all in a morning's work. Little digs at colleagues and rivals slip out. Ken Clarke, the Tory Secretary of State for Justice and former chancellor, and Labour's departing Alan Johnson have "an ability to communicate often complex issues to voters" but "not necessarily the people who are tremendously good at economics".

Ed Balls, the new Shadow Chancellor, comes in for particular criticism as "a great talker, but he is not a great listener". Nobody, it seems, is safe.

The one time he appears to choose his words carefully is when discussing Andy Coulson. On a biting Friday morning, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change does not yet know that the chill wind blowing along Downing Street will signal the resignation within hours of the coalition's director of communications.

"I have no reason to doubt his position," he says precisely, when asked if he was happy with Mr Coulson continuing in his role at No 10. There is the tiniest hint of a smirk. Maybe he does know after all.

With the Hampshire countryside zipping past the carriage window, the Lib Dem cabinet minister was still toeing the line that he "accepted" the word of the Tory spin-doctor, even though in opposition he had claimed he was, at worst, "personally implicated in criminal activity".

He did consider the events of the past fortnight had upped the stakes. "The suspension of [the NoW news editor], Ian Edmondson, has dramatically changed the situation and clearly the police and the Met in particular need to get to the bottom of this."

And he suggested that the scale of illegal phone hacking went further than the News of the World's then royal editor Clive Goodman, who was jailed in 2007. "It was clearly a list of interest to all sorts of other people, to sports reporters, political reporters. Why would the royal correspondent need the voicemail hacking of Simon Hughes?"

Mr Huhne asks this question "as a former journalist", but it is his economic experience upon which he places most emphasis, which made him some £3.5m in the City, and enabled him to buy seven homes. He contrasts this with Mr Balls who "has never worked in the bond market as I have", and as a result did not appreciate the threat to Britain's economy from inaction to tackle the deficit.

"I like Ed, but he is simply wrong on this economic judgement. He has left a trail of hostages to fortune – not only is he the person most associated with Brown and, in fact, Ed knows much more about economics than Gordon. It was Ed's policy that got us into this mess." He adds with a smile: "Ed Miliband has a warmth which Ed Balls sometimes finds it harder to project... put it that way."

Yet the pair have quite a lot in common. Both former hacks – Balls on the FT, Huhne on The Independent on Sunday and The Guardian – they come from an economic background and lost out to a younger rival for their party's leadership. But they clashed when Mr Huhne, with the Lib Dem Treasury guru Vince Cable, warned in opposition about the level of borrowing under Labour. "Right the way up to 2008 we were being pooh-poohed by the Labour Treasury front bench, accused of being sandwich-board men in Oxford Street, warning that doom is nigh. The arrogance with which they dismissed the concerns about what went wrong is breathtaking."

The coalition has been left to clear up the "terrible mess", but Mr Huhne has seen it all before. "I spent five years in the City advising pension funds and insurance companies about exactly what we are having to do about governments that face very serious fiscal legacies and having to put them right." He has never seen a government tackle a deficit "without becoming unpopular".

And lo, it has come to pass. The Lib Dems in particular are taking a hit, down to only 7 per cent in some polls – dangerously close to the 5 per cent mark Mr Huhne warned last year could become a reality.

"The reason why, so far, this has hit us proportionately more than the Conservatives is, inevitably, that some of our supporters at the election would have preferred us to form a government with Labour."

As one of the four Lib Dem coalition negotiators in those giddy days of May, he saw at close range the division in Labour about whether to cling to power or regroup in opposition. While the Eds, Miliband and Balls, seemed "more interested in positioning themselves for the likely Labour leadership contest", Labour Lords Mandelson and Adonis "wanted to try to make it work". Those splits in Labour, he claims, continue today.

While previous governments, not least New Labour, were beset with "unpleasant personal relationships" – Blair-Brown, Thatcher-Lawson, Asquith-Lloyd George – the coalition is a picture of harmony. "The sense of teamwork is very important. Hopefully I am regarded as a team player."

It is a Lib Dem team he once hoped to lead, but he was beaten by Mr Clegg by only 511 votes. Mr Huhne insists he does not wonder what might have been. "Nope. Not at all." Does he envy his party leader? "I am absolutely delighted with the job I do."

Having drawn up much of the Lib Dem climate change policy in opposition, he relishes the chance to put it into practice. Mr Cameron's boast to lead the "greenest government ever" will rest on his shoulders. And he loves it. "This is something I feel passionately about. I think it is overwhelmingly the most important issue facing humanity, not just this country. This is absolutely on the scale we have not had to face outside wartime." He is, it seems, our very own Churchill.

It means a major switch in how we generate and use energy. Mr Huhne believes his party has now made peace with the idea of new nuclear power stations, arguing that global warming is more serious, and anyway the coalition will provide no extra public subsidy. "I made it very explicit in my last speech at conference that we had to accept [nuclear power]. I got a standing ovation."

Next in his sights is securing a pan-European deal on cutting carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, based on 1990 levels – up from the current target of 20 per cent. The French are also making the case, with the Spanish, Danes and Swedes on side. But Central and Eastern European countries, notably Poland, have doubts.

Not only is it key to his policy portfolio, the issue gives Mr Huhne chance to flex his Europhile credentials. "Without Europe, we would be powerless, so this is actually not an erosion of natural power but an extension of national power, so that we can have some clout in the world which we otherwise would not have." You can almost hear the hackles of the Tory right rising.

But he goes further, tearing into Mr Cameron's decision to withdraw his MEPs from the dominant centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, which means they "risk having less clout and influence". The larger Liberal group, in which the Lib Dems sit, has "an awful lot of influence". It is "inevitable" that the coalition is more pro-European with him sitting at the cabinet table, he says, which is "better for the British national interest".

This is why the Tories and Lib Dems are working together, goes the coalition script. Tackling our record deficit. "If we hadn't done that, we would have been in a terrible, terrible mess." Mr Huhne is "absolutely convinced" that "this will come right" and the Lib Dems "will get the benefit, particularly from the fact we have taken tough decisions". But as he acknowledges, this is not a foregone conclusion. "Stuff happens and stuff has to be dealt with, and quickly."

Sixty-odd miles away, stuff is happening. Andy Coulson is about to say he will quit Downing Street, a move designed to save the PM further embarrassment. As Mr Huhne takes the platform in his constituency, he is concentrating on saving the world.

Curriculum vitae

1954 Born 2 July in west London to businessman father, Peter Ivor, and actress mother Ann.

1972 Studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford where he gains a first-class degree. Works on student magazine, Isis.

1977 Starts journalism career as a freelance reporter in India. Posted to Brussels by The Economist. Becomes economic commentator for The Guardian, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.

1980 Wins Wincott Award for Young Financial Journalist of the Year.

1984 Marries Vicky Pryce, shortly after she divorces her first husband, with whom she has two daughters. They have three children together.

1994 Becomes an investment analyst. Sets up Sovereign Ratings IBCA. Is made vice chairman, Fitch Ratings.

1999 Elected as the MEP for South East England.

2005 Becomes MP for Eastleigh in Hampshire.

2006 Runner-up for Lib Dem leadership, after Charles Kennedy quits. Made environment spokesman. A year later, he becomes the party's home affairs spokesman.

2010 Appointed Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in Lib-Con coalition. His attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference means he abstains from the vote over plans to increase university tuition fees.

2010 Wife instigates divorce proceedings after he admitted to an affair.

Riah Pryor

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