The misreading of Chris Huhne

Judge his politics and you’d probably get it wrong.

"Really, you'd be prepared to do a deal with the Tories?" I asked. I'm on a windswept platform waiting for a train with Chris Huhne. "Yes, and that is the most likely outcome of the next election," he replies.

It is 2006, and we've just been to a Parliamentary Party meeting where every other MP said a deal with the Tories was "inconceivable".

Later, Huhne fought a leadership campaign against Nick Clegg and was perceived to be on the left of the party. Three years later, in early 2010, he tabled a minority report – of one person – to Clegg, suggesting that a full coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour would be the only way to tackle the structural deficit.

His fellow coalition negotiators Danny Alexander, David Laws and Andrew Stunell disagreed: they believed the only deal to be struck with the Conservatives was one of "confidence and supply", supporting the Queen's Speech and Budget but sitting on their hands for the rest.

History proved Huhne right, so no wonder he has an air of confidence, which oozes from his profiles this week in Total Politics and the Independent on Sunday.

It's a confidence that enables a member of the cabinet to make an interesting intervention on the phone hacking scandal, one that sees this as a widespread media practice that Scotland Yard has failed to investigate properly.

Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, is widely believed to have secured one of the best Comprehensive Spending Review settlements, liked by civil servants and applauded for unblocking the financial barriers to investment in renewables. However, his full-steam-ahead approach to nuclear power and the paralysis of progress on the Green Investment Bank is storing up frustration in the Lib Dems.

The best observation in the Total Politics profile is made by Rob Wilson MP. He suggests it is hard to place Huhne as a left-winger or an "Orange Booker". I agree – to judge the cover of the weighty tome that is Chris Huhne would be a mistake for anyone. You'd probably get it wrong.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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