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
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.