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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.