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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.