Analysis: Tory critic who covets Clegg’s job – and might still get it

Chris Huhne: a robust critic of his now-former coalition colleagues. Picture: Getty
Chris Huhne: a robust critic of his now-former coalition colleagues. Picture: Getty
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THE departure of Chris Huhne is not exactly a surprise, but it is a serious blow for the Liberal Democrats and their standing within the coalition.

As a former Labour Party member, Mr Huhne was always one of the least comfortable over the partnership with the Conservatives, even though he was part of the small team that negotiated the coalition.

He has for some time been the most “robust” critic of the Tories in the coalition, on subjects such as Europe and electoral reform, from within the ministerial tent.

He has not held back from briefing against Tory Cabinet colleagues or criticising them in public, in a far more damaging and, at times, offensive way than Labour has managed.

Mr Huhne admitted to briefing against Home Secretary Theresa May over her mistaken claim that an illegal immigrant had been allowed to stay because he had a pet cat.

And it is widely believed he was the one who revealed that Education Secretary Michael Gove was pressing for a new royal yacht.

He also described Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi as “Goebbels” during the alternative vote referendum campaign, and the former MEP publicly attacked Prime Minister David Cameron for using his veto in Europe just before Christmas.

It was noticeable, too, that he missed the tuition fees vote, the most humiliating moment for the Lib Dems in the coalition, when they dumped their pledge to scrap fees and instead agreed with the Tories that they should be trebled.

The lack of warmth in the letters between Mr Cameron and Huhne was noticeable, as was the fact that, unlike Mr Clegg, the Prime Minister was not suggesting a return to government.

For Lib Dems, Huhne has been the one seen to stand up for their views against the Tory bullies in a far better way than any of his colleagues, most notably Mr Clegg.

For this reason, many had expected him to find an excuse to resign from government, especially as he was in a marginal seat in Eastleigh, where the Tories were his opponents and he depended on Labour votes.

But if he were to be found guilty, the Tories would see a chance to get rid of one of their harshest critics and one of the only Lib Dems who could bring the coalition down. Many Tories thought he should have been sacked already for his briefing against, and public attacks on, fellow ministers.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems will feel they have lost a champion and one of the few who could stand up to the Tories.

The final result, though, can only be bad news for Mr Clegg. If Huhne is found guilty, it will tarnish the party, and memories of others, such as former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, will be revived.

But if Huhne is found not guilty, it will leave him as a potent force on the back-benches – a critic of the coalition unbound by ministerial duties but with a record of being a successful minister.

It is not exactly a secret that Huhne covets Mr Clegg’s job as leader, having lost to him in one leadership election and Sir Menzies Campbell in another.

If the party wants to move to the left to heal its wounds – and the evidence is that it does – then Huhne, cleared of any wrongdoing, would be the perfect candidate.

He is also the man most likely to appeal to Labour should there be another hung parliament.