Chris Huhne and the “conspiracy of silence” over speeding points claims

The Climate Change Secretary comes under renewed fire after recording of phone call.

Both the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday have splashed on fresh claims about speeding points for the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary in charge of climate change, Chris Huhne.

Following last week's story that Huhne asked an associate to accept penalty points he incurred for a speeding offence in 2003, the papers have followed up with the fresh claim that he recently called the person involved to warn them not to talk to the media about it.

In what the MoS grandly dubs a "conspiracy of silence", Huhne is said to have told the person: "The story they are trying to stand up is that 'Cabinet minister persuaded XXX to take points'. The only way they can stand that up is by getting you to talk to them. There is simply no other person who could possibly tell them whether it is true or not."

The other speaker says: "It's one of the things that worried me when you made me take the points."

If called by journalists, Huhne says, you should: "Just say, oooh, terribly bad line, terribly sorry, bad reception, I'll talk to you later – and hang up."

Falsely naming another driver to avoid penalty points is a criminal offence, and one that would probably end Huhne's ministerial career – and his hopes of succeeding Nick Clegg as the party's leader.

Huhne denies the allegation, although his ex-wife Vicky Pryce told the MoS last week: "I am aware that he pressurised people to take his driving licence penalty points."

PS: The MoS appends this disclaimer to its story: "Neither the Mail on Sunday nor anybody commissioned by the Mail on Sunday was involved in taping evidence of Huhne's phone call." The Sunday Times, for its part, says the tape (which it says is 11 minutes long, rather than the Mail's 13) was "passed" to it and "obtained legally". Surely, then, the only explanation is that Huhne's "associate" recorded the call and handed it over?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.