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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.