05 May 2011

Chris Huhne: Game On or Moron?

There has been considerable speculation over whether Chris Huhne is about to walk out of the ConDem government - and if so, what his next move is.

He's compared Baroness Warsi to Goebbels. He's openly attacked CamOS in cabinet. He's thrown a lot of toys out of the pram. But are some of them packed with explosives?

It's possible that all of this is smoke and mirrors designed to remind voters that the Lib Dems still exist, and increase the Lib Dem core vote (and hey, they're up as high as 11% in the latest YouGov tracker)... certainly there were some premeditated mild spats between Cameron and Clegg in the early stages of the referendum campaign.

I think this has gone more out of control than that, though. I think it's likely that Huhne genuinely can't stand the Tory cabinet and has had enough.

But the question of whether he will still be in the cabinet on Friday, or next month, is irrelevant to the survival of the Coalition; he could just be replaced by Laws or another Lib Dem. The interesting question is: will he challenge Clegg for the leadership?

I should say at this stage that I am no big Chris Huhne fan. I'd met him a few times at various roundtable events in London and found him a rather arrogant guy, difficult to like and I suspect difficult for the public to like as well - the closest comparison would probably be Ed Balls. In the Lib Dem leadership contest of 2007, I was backing Nick Clegg - unbelievably in retrospect, but I'd met him a couple of times as well and he seemed a nice guy - which just shows that you should disregard everything I say from now on about politicians' personalities. Having said that, we've got to the stage where it's Any Means Necessary to stop this ConDem govt destroying our society, and so if it has to be Huhne that's the hero, then so be it.

Could he displace Clegg? In this matter, for the first time ever I turn to advice from former Lib Dem director of communications Olly Grender, who writes the most annoying blog on the New Statesman site (even more annoying than right-wing Labour bruiser Dan Hodges, and that is really saying something). Unlike most hacks out there, Grender actually knows how the Lib Dem leadership rules work. Huhne would need either half the parliamentary Lib Dem party to ask Clegg to stand down, or 75 Lib Dem constituency associations to pass a fully quorate Extraordinary General Meeting to pass a motion saying that Clegg should be removed.

Olly Grender suggests this is an insurmountable barrier to Clegg's removal. To me, it looks more like a couple of boxes of Tic-Tacs stacked one on top of each other. Particularly the 75 constituency associations part... remember that Huhne only lost to Clegg by 50.6% to 49.4 in 2007 - in fact, as Van Patten has pointed out, if the votes had been properly counted (I thought Lib Dems were supposed to be the "fair votes" party?) he would have won. That means that presumably a good proportion of Lib Dem constituency associations endorsed Huhne for the leadership - and that was when Clegg's stock was reasonably high. It strikes me that Huhne could win a leadership ballot standing on his head - especially as it's a ballot of party members rather than MPs, and the Orange Book libertarian tendency is even less well represented among rank and file Lib Dems than it is among MPs (there has been some turnover of Lib Dem members since the election, but even so, I'd be surprised if Orange Bookers were more than a small clique at best).

So, assuming that Huhne stands for leader and wins - what then? Pulling out of this wretched coalition would seem to be a given. What I'm not clear on is what happens then. If there were a vote of confidence with Labour and the Lib Dems voting against the govt, and other minor parties also voting against or abstaining, the govt would fall. But then, is there an automatic general election or does Ed Miliband get a chance to form a govt with Lib Dem and minor party support? This is pretty crucial. The Lib Dems might not want to chance their arm at an election with only 10% support in the polls (although their polling might change radically if they left the coalition - in which case they might prefer the election option after all). Would Labour be happier to form a coalition with the Lib Dems under Huhne? Experience from the previous coalition negotiations suggests not, but this is an at least partially revitalised Labour party, and Huhne could be easier to deal with than Clegg. Or would Labour prefer an election with a possible shot at forming a majority government, given existing polling trends (which are more favourable to them than 2005?) Are either the Lib Dems or Labour confident that a Lib/Lab coalition with only a small effective majority could achieve much, before Labour has completed its policy review? Is there a danger that the Tories could regroup in opposition and emerge with a full majority next time round?

It's a very complex and fascinating set of considerations. All this is of course premised on the idea that Chris Huhne isn't just having a hissy fit but is actually serious. I have no idea whether that is the case or not. I hope he's serious... or at least I think I hope he's serious. But my opinion of the trustworthiness and reliability of the Lib Dems, never high at the best of times, is now shot to hell, and I wouldn't be surprised if the last few days of "Dirty Huhne" turns out to have been a storm in a teacup.

1 comment:

Hal Berstram said...

Sadly it looks more and more like moron rather than Game On for Huhne, in retrospect.