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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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