Mehdi Hasan asks: Should social democrats mourn the departure of Chris Huhne?

The ex-Energy Secretary isn't exactly the lefty he's made out to be.

So Chris Huhne has gone off to defend his innocence in court. Arise Ed Davey!

If the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary is found innocent, will he become a lightning rod for left-wing, anti-coalition dissent on the Lib Dem backbenches? Much is made, for example, of his SDP past.

I was on BBC2's Daily Politics earlier discussing the fallout from the resignation, and host Andrew Neil made the same point on air that he'd made earlier on Twitter:

Clegg's nightmare: Huhne found innocent and rises from backbenches to lead social democrat wing of Lib Dems

It's a point also made by Benjamin Ramm, editor of the centre-left Liberal magazine:

Chris Huhne should not be underestimated: he remains a key figure in the party. Huhne successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, playing on his SDP background to appeal to the Left of the party - despite being a contributor to the Orange Book - and has made it known that he would have favoured a Lib-Lab coalition.

I'm not sure I buy this. Some points to consider:

1) Huhne, a multimillionaire ex-employee of the ratings agency, Fitch, was a contributor to the notorious Orange Book and is believed to have only adopted a leftist stance to try and justify his "insurgent" campaign for the Lib Dem leadership, up against the "Establishment" and centre-right candidate Nick Clegg, in 2007.

2) Huhne spent a great deal of time in the run-up to the 2010 general election briefing journalists that a deal with the Conservatives - whether confidence-and-supply or full coalition - was not out of the question and something he'd be happy to support.

3) Huhne, as David Cameron acknowledged in his response to the former's resignation letter this morning, was one of the lead negotiators on the Lib Dem side during the coalition negotiations in May 2010 and, thus, one of the architects of the subsequent, right-wing Con-Dem coalition.

4) One of the Labour negotiators told me once that he was "shocked" at how hostile Huhne had seemed towards a coalition deal with the Labour Party and how he'd walked into the negotiating room calling for Tory-style in-year spending cuts - in direct contradiction to the Lib Dems' own pre-election position on the timing of austerity measures.

5) In August 2010, it was Huhne who was put up by the Lib Dems alongside Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi in the coalition's first, joint, party-political press conference. Huhne (falsely) claimed that Labour overspending, rather than a collapse in taxation, had been the cause of the record budget deficit and then nodded along as Warsi bizarrely accused Labour politicians of "illegal" and "criminal" behaviour over their handling of the economy.

6) Huhne voted for every single one of the coalition's "regressive" cuts to spending on public services, infrastructure and the welfare state over the past 21 months. As Labour peer Helena Kennedy told him on Question Time in June 2010: "You are providing the sheep's clothing for a very rapacious government that is going to cut spending." On the same show, Labour's Peter Hain rightly castigated the then Energy Secretary for trying to draw a (false) comparison between the British and Greek economies: "No serious economic commentator, and you used to be one before you got into government, believes our economy is anything like Greece."

Then again, having said all of this, I have to also admit that there was no one else in Cabinet who stood up to Cameron and Osborne in the way that Huhne did - over, for example, the negative Tory campaign during the AV referendum and over the Tories' links withe City - which is why the Cameroons won't be sad to see the back of him. Plus, given the size of his ego and his ambition, an innocent, revitalised Huhne could just choose to attack the coalition from the backbenches, and from the left, in order to further his own career, regardless of the fact that his recent record suggests he isn't a lefty. But my own suspicion is that his political career is over.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war