Warsi: Huhne may stand down regardless of court verdict

The Conservative co-chair says that Huhne's Eastleigh seat is a "target" and the Tories would "fight

Chris Huhne has already withdrawn from the cabinet as he faces trial for allegedly perverting the course of justice -- and now it appears his Conservative coalition partners already have their eye on his parliamentary seat, even though the outcome of the trial has yet to be decided.

In an in-depth interview with The House magazine, Sayeeda Warsi, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, has said that she is readying the Tories for a potential by-election fight in Eastleigh:

The party is ready for any by-election at any time. When a by-election is called in Eastleigh then of course we will kick in to action.

Note the use of "when", not "if". She added:

It is a target seat and I think we would fight it hard and we would fight it to win. I don't think the Lib Dems are dug in there. It's winnable. We will do everything we can to win it.

Last month, Guido Fawkes reported that 2,000 Tory party activists were dispatched to Eastleigh just two days after Huhne's court appearance. The Eastleigh Conservative Party insisted that the surge was to do with upcoming local elections rather than a potential by-election, but the timing was difficult to ignore. Warsi said that she has already been campaigning in Eastleigh, recently appearing at an event for local members.

Warsi -- not known for her discretion -- took the unusual step of suggesting that Huhne could step down even if he is found innocent. While she acknowledged that the outcome of the trial is yet to be decided, she said:

The by-election could be called because, you know, Chris might stand down irrespective of what happens at the court case.

The Tories have hardly been supportive of Huhne, who is accused of persuading his ex-wife Vicky Pryce to take his penalty points for a speeding offence nearly ten years ago. In February the Daily Mail reported that David Cameron told attendees of a Tory ball for wealthy donors: "we had to speed to get here on time. It's a good job Samantha was driving -- or at least, that's what it says on the forms!"

In response to Warsi's comments, a Lib Dem spokesman said: "Chris Huhne is denying the allegations against him, so talk of a by-election is extremely premature." The Times (£) quotes an unnamed Lib Dem source saying that the suggestion that Huhne could stand down even if found innocent "display[s] a slight lack of knowledge of Chris".

Huhne denies all allegations and is next due in court in May. While his thoughts may be on the pending trial, perhaps he should also be keeping an eye on the activities of the coalition partners already eyeing up his grave.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

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