Chris Huhne to launch attack on 'Tea Party Tories'


Andrew Grice
Tuesday 20 September 2011 00:00 BST
(Elliott Franks)

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Louise Thomas

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Conservative right-wingers will today be branded the "Tea Party tendency" by Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, in his keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.

In another sign that the Lib Dems are distancing themselves from their coalition partners, Mr Huhne will criticise the Tory MPs who are calling for Britain to exploit the eurozone crisis by grabbing back some powers from Brussels. His decision to bracket them with such right-wing American Republicans as Sarah Palin is likely to upset some Conservatives.

Mr Huhne's attack on the Tory right will raise eyebrows. Some Lib Dem MPs are worried that senior party figures are positioning themselves for a possible future leadership contest.

Although Nick Clegg has dismissed speculation that he might stand down in 2014 to become Britain's European Commissioner, some of his MPs believe that the option could come back on the agenda if the party's and his personal ratings are still poor. A change of leader could also open the door to a deal with Labour if the 2015 election were to result in another hung parliament.

The Energy Secretary will also announce plans to rein in the "big six" gas and electricity companies. Consumers will be able to switch suppliers within a maximum three weeks, a process that currently takes four to six weeks. "Consumer charities" will shop around for householders so they get the best deals, saving them £200 on average. The industry regulator Ofgem will get new powers to force energy companies to make refunds to consumers when they breach their licence conditions, instead of imposing fines which go into Treasury coffers.

The "big six" will have to clearly signpost the cheapest tariff this winter and will no longer be able to block action by Ofgem by seeking a second opinion by the Competition Commission. Mr Huhne will accuse the six of "predatory pricing" to stop small firms entering the market.

Some Clegg loyalists accused Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, of putting down his marker as a future leadership contender on Sunday, when he suggested that a "divorce" from the Conservatives could happen before 2015 – although his speech was cleared by Mr Clegg's office.

"The voters won't be impressed by a three- or four-year leadership contest; they want us to get on with the job in government," said one senior Liberal Democrat.

Lib Dem ministers insist they remain loyal to Mr Clegg, who said he will remain party leader beyond the next election. But there are persistent rumours in the margins of the conference that his leadership could yet become an issue in two or three years' time.

Who's in the running to succeed Clegg?

Vince Cable, Business Secretary, 68

Strengths: Former chief economist at Shell bounced back from his brush with the Murdoch empire, after prematurely declaring war on it last December, and had the last laugh when News Corp abandoned bid for full control of BSkyB. His heart beats on the left. Could do business with Labour in event of a hung parliament.

Weaknesses: May be seen as too old by some Lib Dems and has already had a brief spell as acting leader in 2007. May be seen as having got his hands dirty if Coalition's economic strategy does not work

Chris Huhne: Energy and Climate Change Secretary, 57

Strengths: Combative former journalist who founded his own City firm. Cheered party faithful by attacking Tory ministers at cabinet table for their party's negative campaign against Nick Clegg during May referendum on the voting system.

Weaknesses: May have missed his chance by losing out (narrowly) to Nick Clegg in 2007 and to Sir Menzies Campbell the previous year.

Allegations that he asked his former wife, Vicky Pryce, to take his penalty points on her driving licence, which he strongly denies, are being considered by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Tim Farron, Lib Dem President, 41

Strengths: His role as elected party president leaves him well placed in the role as keeper of the Lib Dem flame without getting his fingers burnt by coalition decisions that play badly with party members. Growing in stature and could come up on the rails in the event of 2014 leadership race.

Weaknesses: Critics say the party would be taking a leap in the dark by electing him due to his relative lack of experience. They say he is not yet proven at the highest level.

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