What does the Chris Huhne story mean for Clegg’s leadership?

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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The former Energy secretary's resignation is a significant blow to the Lib Dems, but a by-election loss would not justify a change of leader, writes John Hood

Behind the Portcullis John Hood

Political editors have been spoilt for choice this week. But before the issue of gay marriage occupied media attention, Chris Huhne found himself in the firing line after pleading guilty on charges of perverting the course of justice. Following a decade of denials that he allowed his former wife Vicky Pryce to take his speeding points, his recent admission means an effective end to his political career and a likely jail sentence.

Huhne’s prickly, confrontational style was never popular with his Conservative Coalition partners, and few will mourn his political passing. But across the Coalition’s political divide the loss will be keenly felt by the Liberal Democrats. Huhne’s ambition caused friction with party colleagues, but he was generally regarded as an important and valued ‘political heavyweight’. His early resignation from ministerial duties helped enable a smooth transition of his responsibilities, but this is the single silver lining in a cloudy sky.

The pressing concern for the Liberal Democrats is the by-election triggered by Huhne’s resignation. Invariably the result will be seen as a litmus test for the popularity of Clegg and his party, currently languishing in national polls. Huhne may have enjoyed a meagre 3,864 majority, but he proved himself a highly capable campaigner (a strength of many Lib Dem incumbents). Finding a candidate with the same credentials and similar local appeal will almost certainly prove too much for the Lib Dems.

But the major challenge for Clegg is the perception reinforced by Huhne’s resignation and admission of guilt that the Lib Dems somehow entered a Faustian pact with the Conservatives when they entered Coalition and are now reaping what they had sown. If voters were unconvinced by the sincerity of Clegg’s apology on university tuition fees, Huhne’s guilt is simply further proof of Lib Dem mendacity.

Chris Huhne

So what will this mean for Clegg’s leadership? The answer is probably – not much. He may cut an increasingly forlorn figure, but for a couple of reasons Clegg is unlikely to be targeted by his colleagues should the Lib Dems lose the Eastleigh by-election.

First, nobody would be willing to wield the knife, and certainly not before an election. Some Lib Dem MPs may be looking nervously at their majorities and questioning whether a leadership change might improve their chances of re-election. But the majority support Clegg and recognise that the party’s fortunes are unlikely to improve dramatically if he is removed now. Not least because this would play to perceptions that the Lib Dems are simply power hungry.

Second, though some MP’s are casting envious glances towards the party leadership, they also have one eye on the long game. Tim Farron, the party President, has made a number of critical remarks on the Coalition, but he has been careful not to go too far. If he or others have designs on leadership, it will be after a 2015 election when the dust has settled and a more managed succession is possible.

It’s undoubtedly a grey week for the yellow party, and it may get worse before it gets better. For now, the issue of gay marriage has overtaken Huhne’s fall from grace in the national press. But the issue is sure to rear its ugly head again once further legal proceedings are underway. The positive news for Clegg is that Huhne’s indiscretions will be less of a catastrophe for the party than for Huhne himself.

John Hood is a consultant at public affairs consultancy Linstock Communications

Chris Huhne image courtesy of Wikipedia, licensed under the Wikimedia Commons

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