It was in May 2011 that the allegation first surfaced that, eight years previously, Chris Huhne had allegedly asked his then wife Vicky Pryce to take the rap for speeding points that would have seen the aspirant Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh lose his licence. It’s a charge Chris has strenuously denied ever since, always saying he welcomes the police investigation as a chance to clear his name. When asked whether he would resign, he has previously only ever had to answer hypothetically, as here when questioned by Andrew Neil:
(Available on YouTube here.)
But now reality has struck. Though Chris was able to retain his cabinet post while the police investigated the claims (as Tim Farron rather neatly put it, ‘Tony Blair remained prime minister while he was investigated, I imagine Chris Huhne can just about cope with being energy secretary’) it was always clear that in the event of formal charges being laid his tenure as secretary of state for energy and climate change would be terminated. Nick Clegg made clear his own view on BBC1 last Sunday:
“Of course, that is a very serious issue if that were to arise. We as a Government want the highest standards of probity to be in place in everything that is done by Cabinet members.”
Nick and Chris contested the leadership of the party following Ming Campbell’s resignation in 2007. Despite a rather bruising campaign — probably best-remembered for the ‘Calamity Clegg’ jibe made by one of Chris’s team — the two later formed en effective working relationship, with Chris key member of the Lib Dem negotiating team which produced the Coalition programme with substantial chunks of the party’s election manifesto incorporated. It was no coincidence that one of the most detailed policy areas was the environment, a long-term passion of Chris’s, which saw him identified as being on the social liberal / centre-left of the party; yet on the economy, he was a Lib Dem fiscal hawk, trenchant in his support for deficit reduction.
Never one to avoid a fight, there was frequent friction between Chris and his Conservative cabinet colleagues. For example, he controversially attacked Tory chairman Baroness Warsi during the AV referendum for mounting an “increasingly Goebbels-like campaign”, spoke out in cabinet against the Tory tactics of personally targeting Nick Clegg (much to its co-author George Osborne’s annoyance), and took David Cameron to task for his ‘veto’ in December’s European summit. For some this smacked of betrayal. Personally I admired Chris’s willingness to say what he thought without resorting to the more common Westminster practices of unattributable briefings. Not that he lacks sharp elbows when they’re needed, a rare trait in Lib Dems which will be missed by (most of) his colleagues.
Chris will soon face the charges that have dogged him for so long; the rest of his political career will now depend on whether he can disprove them.
There will be few major implications for the Coalition of Chris’s resignation. For all the media excitement today, Cameron and Clegg have had plenty of time to prepare for today’s reshuffle. There may be bigger implications for the Coalition’s environment policies — Chris was a big hitter who achieved a huge amount in a short period of time: will his successor be able to continue Chris’s assertive work? An important first decision will be whether to retain Chris’s influential and knowledgeable special advisors, Duncan Brack and Joel Kenrick (a reminder that resignations have a human impact that extends well beyond the minister alone). Both were drafted in by Chris on his appointment to the climate change and energy post; it’s to be hoped they are allowed to continue in their roles.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.