DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday said he hoped voters in the Eastleigh by-election would be able to look past the criminal behaviour which led to Chris Huhne’s resignation and instead focus on the Liberal Democrats’ policies and record.
Mr Clegg said he was “shocked” by disgraced ex-cabinet minister Huhne’s conduct, which resulted in him quitting as an MP after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.
The by-election contest will see Mr Clegg’s Lib Dems engage in a fight with their coalition partners the Conservatives, who hope to regain a seat they lost in 1994.
Mr Clegg said Huhne’s criminal conduct and the trial of his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, would “undeniably” be an issue in the campaign, but voters would be able to separate the “courtroom drama” from the political issues.
“As I have said before, I was very shocked and sad to see what happened and to see that his whole family has been engulfed in this in a very public way.
“I think you have to have a heart of stone not to think that is a pretty shocking and sad thing.”
Mr Clegg said he had taken Huhne’s assurances “at face value” and was only informed about his change of plea the night before he admitted the offence. He added: “At the end of the day Chris needs to speak for himself, needs to answer himself and needs to make amends for what has happened and what he has done.
“I don’t actually think, at the end of the day, when people come to vote in Eastleigh on 28 February, whilst they may have strong feelings one way or another about Chris Huhne, I’ve heard lots of people say they don’t like what’s happening in the court, but they actually think that what he did as a local MP was the model of a Liberal Democrat working hard for the local community.
“I think what people will care about is what does it mean for jobs in the local area, what does it mean for housing in the local area, what does it mean for fair taxes in the local area.”
Mr Clegg said the coalition would remain strong despite the prospect of a bruising contest with the Conservatives on the doorstep in the Hampshire seat.
Mike Thornton, a parish and borough councillor since 2007, was selected to fight the seat for the Lib Dems in a hustings on Saturday. He will be up against Tory candidate Maria Hutchings, a staunch eurosceptic and opponent of David Cameron’s gay marriage reforms which have split the party.
According to a poll released on Saturday, the Lib Dems remain in front in Eastleigh spelling potential defeat for the Prime Minister. The Survation poll put the Lib Dems on 36 per cent, ahead of the Tories on 33 per cent. The poll also put the UK Independence Party on 16 per cent, ahead of Labour on 13 per cent.
Tory Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: “We are going to fight to win. I and all my colleagues will be down there supporting our candidate, who is a good local candidate that people will be able to trust.”