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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war