Lib Dems face tricky by-election after Huhne pleads guilty

Former Lib Dem Energy Secretary announces that he will resign his Eastleigh seat after changing his plea to guilty following the opening of his trial.

Ever since he was charged with perverting the course of justice in February 2012 after allegedly asking his former wife Vicky Pryce to accept speeding points on his behalf, Chris Huhne has insisted he is an innocent man. But today as his trial opened at Southwark crown court, the former Lib Dem Energy Secretary stunned everyone by changing his plea to guilty. 

While Huhne could technically remain as an MP if imprisoned for less than a year, the Lib Dems will now almost certainly face a difficult by-election in Eastleigh, where they currently have a majority of 3,864 and where the Conservatives finished second in 2010.

For the Tories, who have included 20 Lib Dem MPs on their 2015 target list of 40, the contest will be an early test of their ability to take seats off Clegg's party. But with UKIP likely to pour resources into the constituency (Nigel Farage will surely consider standing), a split in the right-wing vote could yet save the Lib Dems. The contest is also a test of whether Labour supporters are still prepared to vote tactically for the Lib Dems in order to keep the Tories out. 

To have any hope of achieving a majority in 2015, the Conservatives have to win seats like Eastleigh. If they fail to do so, and if Cameron's EU referendum pledge proves to have done little to dent UKIP's appeal, Tory MPs will feel emboldened to voice further doubts over the PM's leadership. 

Update: In a short statement outside the court, Huhne said: "I have pleaded guilty today. I am unable to say more while there is an outstanding trial. But having taken responsibility for something that happened 10 years ago the only proper course of action for me is to resign my Eastleigh seat in parliament which I will do very shortly. And that's all I'm able to say today."

The by-election is on. Nigel Farage has said he will decide in the next 24-48 hours whether to stand.

Here's what the 2010 result looked like. 

Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) 24,966 (46.5%) +8.2%

Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 21,102 (39.3%) +2.1%

Leo Barraclough (Labour) 5,153 (9.6%) -11.5%

Ray Finch (UKIP) 1,933 (3.6%) +0.2%

Tony Pewsey (English Democrats) 249 (0.5%) N/A

Dave Stone (Independent) 154 (0.3%) N/A

Keith Low (National Liberal Party - Third Way) 93 (0.2%) N/A

Majority: 3,864 (7.2%) 

Former Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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As the Gaslighter-in-Chief takes office, remember: you're not going mad

Why do I feel so angry and anxious about Donald Trump? Because I've seen what happens when you can't trust your own mind.

This might sound strange, but it was on a psychiatric ward that I first gained one of the most important insights into covering politics. I must have been no more than 12: I was there to visit a relative who had been sectioned after putting his hand through a window. He was convinced that the local newspaper had a front-page news story mocking him. My dad brought him a copy of the paper to show that wasn’t true. “They must have changed it,” came the stark response.

It was then I realised: your mind can lie to you. And losing your grip on reality is like being trapped down a well with sides made of slippery, moss-covered stones. Where are the handholds to pull yourself out? You can no longer trust what you hear, what you see, what you think you know. There is no evidence that can change your mind.

Our acknowledgement that this feeling is frightening partly explains the strong social taboo against lying in politics. Do politicians lie any more than normal people? Probably not. But their lies have traditionally been more stigmatised – for good reason. Any discussion of politics relies on basic agreed facts, from which flow a common reality. It’s why the experience of being lied to is so disorienting. You begin to question yourself: did that really happen? Do I know what I think I know?

I remembered that moment when I first saw Donald Trump deny that he had ever “mocked” a disabled reporter. A lie that brazen induces a kind of mental vertigo. I saw him do it. I saw the video! During the US election I saw him standing up in front of a crowd at a rally in South Carolina and say: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.” Then he bent his hands in at the wrists, jerking wildly, adding: “Ah, I don’t know what I said! Ah, I don’t remember.”

The impression was a textbook example of what my school playground would have called a “spastic”. The reporter in question, Serge Kovaleski of the New York Times, has a disease called arthrogryposis, in which his joints contract, bending his wrists.

Immediately after the incident, Trump claimed: “I have no idea who this reporter . . . is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him.” (Let us pause briefly to note Trump’s casual and telling conflation of physical and mental disability.) Unfortunately, Kovaleski tells a different story. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” he said. “I’ve interviewed him in his office.”

For the past few months, I’ve been asking myself why, exactly, the election of Donald Trump has made me so angry and anxious. Is it because I hate democracy, because I think working-class voters are stupid, that I am a swan-eating metropolitan who wouldn’t go outside the M25 if my life depended on it? (No, no and no. Come on, guys, I sometimes go to Brighton!)  I think it’s because that moment on the psychiatric ward – and seeing several loved ones suffer mental illness since – taught me that drowning in your own mind, unable to climb out, is an almost indescribably horrific experience. So what kind of person inflicts that on others by wilfully distorting reality for their own political gain? It is cruelty. I’m in charge, and let me tell you: you don’t know what you think you know. I didn’t mock that reporter you saw me mocking. I didn’t even know he was disabled. I don’t remember him. What kind of politician deliberately makes his audience feel as though they are losing their minds?

I’ve written before about “gaslighting” one of those internet-friendly buzzwords that normally make me flinch. It’s what happened to the families of the Hillsborough dead, where their grief was compounded by the message that their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, had brought it on themselves. It’s what happens in abusive relationships, where the victim’s sense of self is slowly chipped away until they internalise the lie that “he only hits me because I make him so angry”. It’s what happens in America when a police officer fires shots into a black man’s back and the community is told it was self-defence.

That was why Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was so powerful – and why Trump’s itchy Twitter finger served up a swift reply. We longed to see our version of reality reassert itself. “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” said Streep, collecting a lifetime achievement award. “It was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”

Streep called on her audience of movie stars – the kind of people Trump hates, except for when they offer him a cameo in Home Alone 2 – to stand up to this kind of bullying, and to defend journalists’ ability to “safeguard the truth”.

Inevitably, Trump responded in his usual thin-skinned way. He called Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and added: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!” So brace yourself. This is what we should expect for the next four years. All hail the Gaslighter-in-Chief.

History is written by the winners, and now we can see a false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet. Yet those of us who understand even a little how painful it is to be a prisoner of your own mind have to remind each other: no matter what he says, we still know what we know.

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.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge